Men’s basketball continues surge on home court

| Senior Sports Editor

This time last year, the Washington University men’s basketball team was at their lowest point. Mired in a six-game losing streak that ultimately derailed their season, the Bears suffered crushing conference loss after crushing conference loss.

“Last year was a ‘grow up’ year. We experienced what it’s like to play close games and come up at the bottom end of it,” head coach Mark Edwards said of his team, which featured just one senior. “This year, we’re much more comfortable with what we have to do.”

Matt Highsmith prepares to shoot a free throw aganist Carnegie Mellon. The Bear’s won 93-80.

Matt Highsmith prepares to shoot a free throw aganist Carnegie Mellon. The Bear’s won 93-80.

And what the Bears have done is plow through the University Athletic Association (UAA). Five weeks into conference play last season, the Bears were 2-7m with five losses coming by three points or less. Now, Wash. U. is 9-0 in the UAA, with a chance to crack the top-five national rankings for the first time since January 2015.

The latest chapter in this turnaround came this weekend. To kick off the second half of conference play, the Bears delivered a pair of home wins against Carnegie Mellon University and Case Western Reserve University.

Friday against Carnegie Mellon, Wash. U. shot a season-high 59.3 percent from the floor in a 93-80 win. In the first quarter, the Bears quickly found a way to pierce the Tartans’ zone defense.

“They zoned us, which most teams don’t do—most teams play us man-to-man—and that allowed us to find the gaps inside of their defense,” junior forward Matt Highsmith said.

“The big part of it was to make sure that we move the ball laterally a lot because it makes the defense change position. And eventually, someone is going to mess up, and there is going to be an opening,” Highsmith added.

Junior point guard Kevin Kucera took full advantage of the Tartans’ porous defense, racking up 10 points and 10 assists.

“There were some of those [assists] where he threw the pass before the player was there,” Edwards said. “That’s the advantage of playing together for three years.”

Junior forward Andrew Sanders, junior guard Jake Knupp, senior guard Michael Bregman, senior forward Clinton Hooks, junior center David Schmelter, Kucera and Highsmith—what you could call the Bears’ core seven—all experienced the same lackluster 2015-16 season. All are now driving this year’s surge.

Wash. U. leads the UAA in assists per game and entered the weekend fourth in Division III.

The Bears flourished inside the arc on Friday, scoring 40 points in the paint and pulling down a plus six rebound margin. Already a strong team underneath the basket, Wash. U. began to pull away midway through the first, when Carnegie Mellon’s starting big men, Jack Serbin and Chris Shkilm got into foul trouble.

“Any time a starter goes out of the game, that’s really an opportunity to attack,” Schmelter said. “And when a guy has a couple of fouls, he’s going to be a little more careful on defense.”

Both teams had to navigate a tightly called game. Besides getting sent to the line 33 times, the Bears were tagged with 20 personal fouls—one off their season high. Highsmith and Sanders took particular advantage of the referees’ quick trigger, hitting 9-13 and 10-11 shots from the charity stripe. The forwards led the Bears’ offensive attack with 26 and 18 points, respectively. Sanders also added a team-high 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.

Against Case Western, the Bears eclipsed the 100-point mark for the second time this season in a 102-97 win Saturday afternoon.

This time, the Bears were fouled a season-high 35 times, leading to a 36-54 night from the foul line. Sanders hit seven of 10 free throws on his way to a team-high 15 points. Five other Bears finished in double figures.

With seven minutes left in regulation and the Bears up by 25, Edwards took his starters out of the game. That decision nearly came back to bite Wash. U., as the Spartans outscored the Red and Green 39-19 in the final minutes. That was enough to pull the Bears’ starters off the bench to finish off the five-point win.

The Bears are now 17-3 and haven’t lost a game since mid-December. To help further explain the Bears’ recent conference success, Edwards pointed to the Bears tough early-season schedule. In addition to the University of Rochester, which was ranked No. 3 before facing the Bears in the first half of UAA play, the Bears also had games against Augustana College, a team that was ranked as high as No. 16 this year, as well as University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, which made it all the way to No. 7.

“It pays off when you get down the stretch,” Edwards said.

The Bears have a chance to make their biggest statement of the season next Sunday when they host the now-No. 5 Rochester.

Remember, it was the Bears’ five-point victory over the YellowJackets back in mid-January that kicked off the Bears’ steady climb up the national rankings from 20th up to their current standing at number six. A second win over a team like Rochester would give the Bears a clear path to their first UAA championship since 2014.

It’s a tall task. Rochester beat New York University by a whopping 43 points on Friday and Brandeis by 27 on Sunday.

“We’re not taking any team for granted—and especially not that one,” Schmelter said of the YellowJackets.

Also on the docket next weekend is a Friday night matchup at Emory University. Two days before their win over Rochester in January, the Bears held the Eagles to 32.4 percent shooting from the field in an eight-point win.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the men’s basketball team has reached 100 points in a single game twice this year.

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