Men’s basketball team clinches UAA title, NCAA bid in win
It was hardly an easy feat. On Senior Night, in front of a packed Field House on Friday, the Washington University men’s basketball team secured sole possession of the University Athletic Association title and an automatic NCAA tournament bid with a 65-62 win over Case Western Reserve University.
“Being able to win the UAA outright, on Senior Night, it was kind of a nice feather in our caps as seniors,” senior co-captain Aaron Thompson said. “For the team, it’s just a nice relief knowing that we’re going to be in the tournament for sure, and we don’t have to leave anything to chance.”
Up by two with just 5.9 seconds left in the game, the Bears defense forced a turnover on a Case Western inbounding play, sealing a tense game with an equally tense ending.
“We won [the game], and I thought we played well,” head coach Mark Edwards said. “Sometimes people get caught up in expectations, and they forget about the fact that the object of the game is to win it. Secondly, that nobody is going to play perfect. The third thing is that you’ve got to expect the other team to play well.”
Junior Spencer Gay had a team high of 18 points and three blocks to edge the Bears past the Spartans. Thompson, one of four senior players being celebrated on Friday night, scored 15 points.
The Bears had a hot start, taking a six-point lead with 14:54 left in the first half, relying on a strong inside presence and well-timed passes.
“[My teammates] set good screens for me, and I was wide open,” Gay said. “Sean [Wallis] got me the ball, I got in good position, and all I really had to do was lay it up.”
But with an increased Spartan defense, which forced errors and turnovers, the lead quickly disappeared.
“We’re so confident in each other…that sometimes, if they bump us or take away a cut…[mistakes] happen,” Edwards said. “We just have to know how to deal with it.”
Junior Alex Hildebrandt’s three-point play resulted in a 25-22 advantage with 5:59 to go in the first half as Case took a four-point lead into the break.
At the 15:18 mark in the second half, sophomore Tom Summers’ layup pushed the visitor’s lead to six.
Junior Caleb Knepper’s three-pointer reclaimed the lead for the Bears, part of a 12-4 run, but the game remained a close battle until the final buzzer. Thompson’s three-pointer with 90 seconds left pushed the lead to six, and proved to be vital in the win.
“As a senior, and having played in so many close games over the years, you kind of learn what needed to happen,” Thompson said. “In those situations…it’s your turn to step up to the table and take the team and put them on your shoulders and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going to happen. Let’s go do it.’”
The Bears carried the momentum from Friday night into Sunday’s game against Carnegie Mellon University, the final home game of the season. Gay led the team, again, with a career high of 22 points. Senior Zach Kelly finished with 13 points in the 95-58 victory.
“Coming into the game, we didn’t feel as much pressure because we secured the UAA championship,” Gay said. “We were relaxed today.”
The conference championship is the Bears’ third in the past four years, and the 10th in program history. Washington University (22-2, 12-1) concludes the regular season on Saturday, Feb. 27, at the University of Chicago (13-11, 7-6).
“I am proud, but I’m also happy for [the team]. The seniors are going to go out in style, and not just with the winning, but putting on a nice legacy for the young kids coming in,” Edwards said.