Three months ago, those outside the program did not have that much faith in men’s basketball. The team was picked to finish in the bottom half of the UAA, hampered by its lack of true big men in a league dominated by post players. Unfazed by the low ranking, Mike McGrath was candid in his remarks at the time.
“I’m not surprised that we’re last [among the top tier of UAA teams] because of what we lost,” McGrath said. “But I sure as hell don’t think we should finish fifth.”
Most coaches will express confidence in their players to the press, but this squad pulled off the much rarer feat of backing those words up on the court. With a weekend sweep on the Appalachian swing and a 66–61 loss by 11th-ranked Wash U (19–4, 10–3) to Rochester (17–7, 8–5) Sunday, the 14th-ranked Maroons (20–4, 11–2) have clinched at least share of the UAA title with a showdown with the Bears looming this weekend.
With just one game left in the season, Chicago’s first league championship since 2001 is secure. The men head to St. Louis Saturday for a 3 p.m. bout that will determine whether or not they will have to split the title with their hated rivals. The tension will be heightened even further due to UAA tiebreaker rules that would give Wash U the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth with a season series-sweeping win. The Bears won the first meeting at Ratner 70–59 January 6.
“It’s big because we see whether we share the league title or win it outright, and it’s big because it’s Wash U,” McGrath said.
The Maroons put themselves in this enviable position by playing the same adaptable and hot-shooting game that they have relied on all season long. They beat back hard challenges in the late going from both Rochester in a hard-fought 76–73 victory at the Palestra Friday and took down Carnegie Mellon (12–11, 5–8) in an 82–75 grinder in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon.
Standing at third place in the UAA entering the weekend and still in contention for a playoff bid of their own, Rochester was not about to go down without a fight at home.
With third-year big men Uche Ndubizu and Jon Onyiriuka locked down by some tight defense by the Maroons’ forwards, second-year guard Mike Chmieloweic and third-year guard Robert Dominiak stepped up to combine for 21 points in the first half. The Maroons were only able to build a 46–40 lead at halftime despite shooting an astounding 75 percent from the floor. Chicago had its biggest lead of the game at 34–18 with 8:30 left before the break, but the Yellowjackets refused to roll over.
“You’re not going to put anyone away on the road at Carnegie and Rochester. We countered them when they made runs, and we stopped them when they were about to turn the tide,” McGrath said. “You’re never going to have an easy time there.”
With the knowledge of exactly how big a win could be in the back of their minds, the Maroons kept up the pressure and forced penetration off the dribble throughout the second half. Third-year forward Nate Hainje (16 points), fourth-year guard Brandon Woodhead (11 points), and fourth-year forward Jason Vismantas (12 points, 11 boards) did more than their fair share of damage to hold off repeated runs from Rochester. With 21 seconds to go, Vismantas nailed one of two from the charity stripe for the 76–73 lead. Chicago made a great defensive stand to force their hosts to work almost all of that time off the clock and take a weak shot to end the game.
“Both teams were getting a few stops toward the end, and we ran out the clock a little because they went zone the first few times,” McGrath said. “When Jason got those free throws I thought we were going to the line two or three more times, but we just did a very good job shutting down on D.”
With fourth-year guards Jesse Meyer (17 points) and Drew Adams (16) breaking into double-figures as well, 72 out of the 76 the men put on the scoreboard were chipped in by the starters. However, second-year center Tom Watson made his first appearance off the bench since suffering his second knee dislocation of the year and followed that up with seven points and three rebounds in 13 minutes against CMU. Third-year starting center Tim Reynolds and second-year forward Adam Machones may still be available for Wash U, putting the Maroons at full strength for the first
time since December 16.
Watson wasn’t the only man off the bench to make his presence felt against the Tartans. Third-year forward Matt Corning scored 11 and first-year guard Jake Pancratz had nine on three-for-three shooting to help Chicago’s cause on a day when the visitors needed to get some help from new places. The physical battle with the Yellowjackets took a serious toll on the Maroons, limiting the effectiveness of Vismantas, Meyer, and Adams, but Carnegie had no answers for the ankle-breaking moves of Woodhead. The UAA’s best guard ripped the home team for 21 points and six boards on 9-for-18 shooting, including seven points in the closing minutes to continue building his case for league MVP.
“He made a lot of big plays. Rochester was a tough, emotional battle, and our legs weren’t there as much on Sunday. Brandon really carried us through that,” McGrath said.
The adoption of a dribble-penetration strategy for the second game in a row paid huge dividends for Chicago in this one, forcing the Tartans to commit 22 fouls. The Maroons went to the line 30 times and made 23 of their attempts, furthering their position as one of the best shooting teams in Division III.
With a chance to avenge their biggest home defeat of the year just ahead and a shot at the Final Four in Salem, Virginia on the horizon as well, the Maroons are content to let the experts figure out what went wrong in the predictions as they continue to do seemingly everything right.