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Men’s basketball coasts past ranked duo to close undefeated January

Jon Lewis | Senior Sports Editor

If you were betting money on the Washington University men’s basketball team slipping up sometime in its conference schedule this year, you probably would have picked this weekend. The Bears faced their toughest set of UAA games so far this year, traveling to No. 22 University of Rochester and No. 13 Emory University this weekend—both games that posed a significant challenge for the second-ranked team in the nation.

However, if you had actually put anything down on that bet, you would have lost your money, as Wash. U. did not just win both their games this weekend, but did so almost on cruise control. The Bears won their two games this weekend by a combined 32 points, allowing neither opponent to reach even 70 points.

Senior Kevin Kucera dribbles the ball in a game against Central Iowa. The Bears took home the victory, winning 87-83.Grace Bruton | Student Life

Senior Kevin Kucera dribbles the ball in a game against Central Iowa. The Bears took home the victory, winning 87-83.

Head coach Mark Edwards said he was pleased with his team’s consistency.

“We carried the energy from last weekend when we won two road games into this weekend against better opponents and had the same kinds of results,” Edwards said.

Last weekend the Bears overwhelmed Case Western Reserve University and Carnegie Mellon University, two unranked teams. This weekend Edwards’ team replicated those results against two teams in the top 25.

The weekend slate tipped off Friday night at the Louis Alexander Palestra in Rochester, NY. The Bears were the quickest out of the blocks, and the Yellowjackets were forced to take a timeout after just three minutes when senior Jake Knupp stole the ball and drained a three in transition, putting Wash. U. up 8-2.

Out of the time out, Rochester came roaring back with a 14-5 run, and took a 16-13 lead on a 3-pointer from Brendan O’Shea.

Wash. U.—a team on which six players average 20 or more minutes per game and no other players average more than 10—then turned to an unexpected place to regain control of the game: the bench.

With 11:15 left to play in the half, Edwards put sophomore forward Hank Hunter and senior guard Matt Nester into the game. Hunter and Nester joined freshman guard Jack Nolan—who had entered the game for senior forward Matt Highsmith three minutes prior—in a unit that featured only two starters, a rarity in a close game this season.

The substitutions immediately paid off. Hunter pulled down a rebound after a Rochester miss on the next possession, leading to Nester three assisted by Nolan. After the Yellowjackets scored on the next possession, the two substitute guards combined again, with Nolan draining a jumper off of a feed from Nester to give the Bears a one-point lead.

Nolan, a potent outside scorer, was suddenly hot. On the next Red and Green possession, Nolan pulled up from downtown and connected. After another Rochester miss on the next possession, Nolan fired from outside and connected. By the time Rochester could blink, Nolan had gone on a personal 8-0 run in a minute and a half to put the Bears up seven.

From there, Wash. U. never looked back. Nolan canned another three for good measure before heading back to the bench, taking his first-half total to 13. All in all, the Bears bench combined for 22 points in the first half, and Wash. U. went back to the locker room with a 43-33 lead.

The second half was all about keeping the Yellowjackets just out of reach. Four times in the half, Rochester hit a shot to cut the Wash. U. lead to single digits. Every time, Wash. U. responded to restore their double digit advantage. With 8:45 to play, senior David Schmelter hit a layup to put the Bears up 54-54, and the lead was never less than 10 from then on, as Wash. U. closed out a 77-62 win.

Senior guard Kevin Kucera, who was uncharacteristically quiet with just two points and two assists in the first frame, came back with a vengeance in the second, scoring 10 himself and dishing out six assists. Schmelter was also key for the Bears on the boards, grabbing 15 total rebounds including four on the offensive glass.

After Wash. U. managed to escape Rochester unscathed, they flew down to Atlanta to take on Emory, another ranked team with an almost identical resume to the Bears. Heading into Sunday’s matchup, both teams were 15-2 and 7-0 in the conference.

The heavyweight matchup started out close, as the Bears and Eagles went punch for punch over the first 12 minutes of the game. Over this first stretch, Wash. U. was led by Highsmith, who scored nine early points to help keep pace with Emory.

With seven minutes to play in the half, Highsmith got into a personal three-point contest with Emory’s Adam Gigax. First Gigax hit a three to cut a six-point Wash. U. lead in half. Highsmith immediately responded, taking a feed from Knupp and draining three of his own.

Sophomore Hank Hunter shoots in a game against Central Iowa Dec. 9. The Bears defeated two ranked opponents, the University of Rochester and Emory University, this weekend.Grace Bruton | Student Life

Sophomore Hank Hunter shoots in a game against Central Iowa Dec. 9. The Bears defeated two ranked opponents, the University of Rochester and Emory University, this weekend.

Gigax, taking Highsmith’s challenge, hit another catch-and-shoot three on Emory’s next trip down the floor. After a Highsmith turnover, Gigax tried his luck one more time, but came up short. Highsmith did not make the same mistake twice, however, and canned a three on a feed from Kucera.

This last three ignited a run that blew the game wide open. Over the next five and a half minutes, the Bears went on an 18-6 run, capped off by a three-pointer from Kucera just before time expired.

Once again, Wash. U. took a big lead into the halftime break, and once again they successfully stymied any comeback attempts. The Bears went up by as many as 25, and Emory never managed to pull within single digits. What had promised to be a close-knit affair fizzled out into a 17-point Wash. U. win.

Edwards said that what has shone through in Wash. U.’s current eight-game winning run in general, and particularly when five seniors scored in double figures against Emory, was experience.

“We have a lot of experience back from a very successful team last year,” Edwards said of his all-senior starting five. “They are committed to their goal of having a great team, and they’ve got the experience to do that.”

This experience will be put to the test one more time next weekend, when Wash. U. will host rematches with both Rochester and Emory.

Additional reporting by Frank Yang.