Shaky start to conference play doesn’t faze 4th-ranked Bears

| Sports Editor

After a shaky 2-1 start to open the University Athletic Association (UAA) season, including a 58-55 overtime loss to then-No. 20 Brandeis University, the No. 4 Washington University men’s basketball team is unfazed.

“To escape the top half of the conference with a 2-1 record is something we’re okay with,” graduate student Sean Wallis said. “We’re not thrilled about it, but it’s no reason to hit the panic button at this point.”

The Bears worked to keep up with the Judges in their Jan. 15 contest. An 18-14 Wash. U. lead at the 10:34 mark in the first half was quickly erased by a 14-1 Brandeis scoring run. Despite the 8:54 run, the Bears took only a 30-26 deficit into the break.

Both teams struggled to score in the second half. After battling back from a seven-point deficit, both the Bears and the Judges went cold. In the next 8:34, the teams scored only a combined six points. Junior Spencer Gay’s game-tying layup with only 12 seconds left in the game was the first field goal for the Red and Green in nearly 9:30 minutes.

“We didn’t necessarily get some of the looks we wanted to get, but I mean those are things that happen every season,” senior Cameron Smith said. “Every year you have times when you’re not playing your best and you’re making little mistakes.”

In overtime, down 55-53 with only 10 seconds left, Wash U. missed two crucial free throws, allowing Brandeis to escape with a victory. As a team, the Bears were 10 of 22 from the free-throw line.

A Jan. 4, 64-60 win over University of Chicago and a Jan. 17, 60-57 win over New York University could not have come closer.

After trailing by as many as seven points to the Maroons in the first half, a three-pointer from Wallis with 2:38 left in the period cut the lead 28-27.

Coming out of halftime with a 30-28 deficit, Wallis’s jumper with 18:14 remaining gave the Bears their first lead of the game. Wallis recorded 24 points in the contest.

“I just made a concerted effort to start trying to get to the basket a little more than I had been and…not just relying on my outside shot,” Wallis said. “It definitely was a more conscious [effort] on my part, but at the same time, it also is taking what the defense gives you.”

Minutes later, senior Aaron Thompson’s three-pointer gave the Bears a 39-38 lead. The Bears would stay ahead for the rest of the game.

Wallis and Gay led the Red and Green through another tough game against NYU, scoring 22 and 11 points, respectively. Gay scored the team’s first six points against the Violets, but the Bears were cold from the floor.

Wallis’s three with 16:35 left in the first half put the Bears on top 9-8. It was the only basket from behind the arc, with the Bears shooting 1 of 13 (7.7 percent) from long range and 9 of 29 (31 percent) from the field in the first half.

Despite the poor shooting, rebounding kept the Bears alive. Wash. U. out-rebounded NYU 26-14 in the first half, limiting the Violets to only one offensive board. Gay recorded nine rebounds in the win.

“Whenever I’m in the game, I try to focus on my energy and try to get the energy of [my teammates] up,” Gay said. “Most of that focuses on defense.”

The game was a back-and-forth battle in the second half, but Thompson’s layup with 4:18 left in the game gave the Bears a lead they would not relinquish.

For the next four games, the Bears are on the road, taking on UAA foes Case Western Reserve University (9-5, 1-2) at 8 p.m. (ET) tonight in Cleveland and Carnegie Mellon University on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

“We’ve just got to keep making steps forward on this road trip,” Gay said. “I feel like the other teams really know what to expect of us, so we’re not trying to send any messages. We’re just trying to get back on track.”