Bears win UAA conference championship
The road to Salem has officially begun.
The 12th ranked Washington University men’s basketball won the UAA championship Saturday afternoon with a thrilling 79-74 victory over 11th-ranked Chicago before an announced crowd of 1,907 fans at the Field House. With the win the Bears (20-4, 11-3 UAA) received the league’s automatic bid to the Division III NCAA Tournament.
Saturday’s championship tilt had all the makings of an instant classic. Bears head coach Mark Edwards said the frenzied, red-clad crowd was the best he could remember in his 26 years at the helm of the program. Despite heavy morning downpours, the Field House’s lower bowl was completely packed, with much of the second deck full as well. Both Thurtene and Honorary and the Athletic Department heavily promoted the game throughout the week.
Chicago opened the contest on absolute fire, as the three-happy Maroons connected on four of their first five attempts from downtown to take a 12-7 lead in the game’s opening minutes. The Bears responded, however, thanks to the early hot-hand of forward Nick Nikitas. Playing in his final regular season home game, the senior scored ten of Wash.U’s first twelve points to keep the game close in the opening minutes.
The Bears trailed by as many as six with 14 minutes remaining in the half before going on a 14-0 run over the game’s next seven minutes to take a 28-20 lead.
It was a lead they would never relinquish.
Chicago’s versatile junior Nate Hainje kept the game close, however, scoring 15 of his team-high 20 points in the opening half, as the Maroons trailed by just one, 37-36, at intermission.
Wash. U. limited Hainje and the rest of the Maroons’ potent three-point shooters in the second half, en route to a ten point lead with less than five minutes remaining. “We really tried to get out on their shooters in the second half. In the first half, especially early, they killed us,” said freshman off-guard Aaron Thompson, who finished with 13 points, including four 3′s, in 31 minutes of action.
Thompson singled out the unrelenting defensive intensity of sophomore swingman Tyler Nading: “As the game gets on, Tyler gets better because he just keeps on hustling and hustling and I think that had a big factor on Hainje.”
Edwards seconded that sentiment, describing a play in which Nading received a standing ovation from the Wash.U. faithful midway through the second half.
“Tyler had one of the most unbelievable hustle plays I’ve ever seen. He dove and knocked the ball loose, got up, dove and grabbed the ball, threw it to a guy, got up and ran and was at the basket and got fouled on a lay up – all in one series,” said Edwards. “He beat their whole team down the floor while diving on the floor twice. You can’t knock that heart.”
The Bears led by as many as 12 with less than eight minutes to go in the second stanza, but Chicago refused to quit. The South Siders cut the lead to four on three separate occasions in the final two minutes of play, but couldn’t get any closer, as the hosts pulled out the gritty win on the final day of the regular season.
Chicago finished the regular season tied with Wash. U. in the UAA standings and will officially be considered UAA co-champions, but the Maroons will not receive the league’s automatic bid since they lost both the season’s meetings to Wash. U. Head-to-head match-ups serve as the league’s first tiebreaker.
Ever-steady junior big man, Troy Ruths, was his normal self, tallying 19 points to ago along with nine rebounds. Nading led four Wash. U. scorers in double figures with 24 points and added six rebounds, despite having his playing time limited due to foul trouble. He also continually drew difficult defensive assignments throughout the afternoon and noticeably altered Hainje’s effectiveness in the second-half.
But perhaps the most outstanding statistic from the afternoon came from Wash. U. point guard Sean Wallis. The sophomore floor general tallied a sc
hool record 16 assists in the contest to go with just two turnovers in 38 minutes of playing time. Wallis did not record a field goal and finished with three points.
“They came out pretty hard on me. I had a good game up at their place, so I think they made some adjustments. I wasn’t getting very many looks today,” said Wallis. “I was able to get everybody else involved. It was great because they were hitting their shots. I couldn’t be happier.”
Nikitas joined Thompson, Ruths, and Nading in double figured, as the senior finished with 12 points.
The championship victory marked the ideal culmination to a regular season which has piqued the curiosity of more Wash. U. students than any school sports team in recent history. While crowds routinely filled the Field House throughout the second-half of regular season play, the excitement Saturday was at an all-time high.
“The atmosphere in that game was probably the best basketball atmosphere I’ve played in front of. It was just awesome. It was a big game for us, the fans knew it and they really helped us win,” said reserve guard Phil Syvertsen.
“The fans definitely didn’t let us down. They were great. They were loud,” said Wallis.
As a bruised and battered Nading was carried off the court on the shoulders of the Wash. U. student body, it might have been difficult for many in attendance to fathom that the Chicago win, in fact, did not mark the end of the season. The Bears will find out today where they are headed in the NCAA tournament.
Fans will likely have at least one, and probably two, more opportunities to see the squad compete, as Wash.U. is expected to host early-round competition. Chicago is expected to receive an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
The fact that the team is now six games away from a national title was lost on no one on the young team.
“We’ll take some time [to enjoy the Chicago win] but we’re not going to lose sight of our ultimate goal,” said Nading. “We’re in the tournament now and that’s what matters. It’s where wanted to be at the start and now we can go get our ultimate goal.”
And what is that ultimate goal?
“Coach sets us down on the first day of practice and says ‘we’re here to win the national championship,’” said Wallis.
“That’s what we’re here to do.”
Popularity: 1% [?]