*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a new story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – Over the past decade, whenever the University of Chicago men's basketball team steps onto the court against Emory University, plenty of action is in store. The high-tempo pace of the matchups has produced dramatic and memorable moments. In their two games during the 2018-19 season, the teams combined to score 405 points. Even going back to 2012, when UChicago's Matt Johnson hit a long three-pointer at the buzzer to win the game 103-102.
The showdowns in 2020 promised more of the same. Emory averaged 86.6 points per game over the course of the season and led the University Athletic Association (UAA) in three-pointers made.
"Emory plays fast offensively and tries to be disruptive defensively," said UChicago Head Coach Mike McGrath. "It makes for very interesting games. Composure is the key. You can have a tough stretch of plays and/or have Emory go on a run – you just need to stay together and play through that. Our team is generally pretty good at that and our excellent guard play was a big factor in our recent successes playing them."
As the UAA schedule began its second half of conference play in February 2020, the Maroons delivered a big performance on the road to knock off the No. 6-ranked Eagles by an 84-76 score.
Heading into that February 7 contest in Atlanta, UChicago was hungry to get back into the win column. The squad had lost three-straight at home, including a pair in the final seconds to Brandeis University and University of Rochester. Emory had also come away with a double-digit victory as well.
But the timing of the schedule flip proved fortuitous. With the mirrored format of the 14-game UAA schedule, the Maroons would face Emory and Rochester again the very next week.
"The flip actually makes the preparation aspect of the season a bit easier for one weekend as you play the same two teams again," McGrath said. "The mental aspect is what is so intriguing about this schedule. Bouncing back, after a loss or win, and getting ready to play the same team again can be very challenging."
By that point of the season, the Maroons were well acquainted with tough teams. Their schedule was littered with nationally-ranked opponents and national tournament participants, with the likes of Illinois Wesleyan University, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Wheaton College, along with annual UAA foes Washington University – St. Louis, Emory and Rochester. Despite the recent skid, McGrath wanted his players to realize how close they were to turning the corner on those results.
"We have been right there with so many good teams and come up short," said McGrath. "We just cannot get down on ourselves and must be sure to stay together as a team. One of the fun aspects of this team was that they never stopped working and working together. This focus was evident at this point in the season and this is where it really paid off for us."
The first half played out closely as the two teams stayed within four points of each other for almost the entire 20 minutes. Junior forward Brennan McDaniel and first-year forward Bryce Hopkins got rolling by scoring UChicago's final 10 points of the period to give the visitors a narrow 36-35 lead at the break.
Due to Emory's constant pace, the games typically feature more possessions than usual, resulting in high-scoring affairs. UChicago and Emory led the conference in three-point attempts per game on the season, and the two sides combined for 54 three-point attempts that night.
While the Maroons started off cold in the first half (1-for-9 from three-point range), the second half saw them catch fire, making 7 of 15 from beyond the arc. The key sequence kicked off at 8:24 remaining in the game with the Eagles holding a 64-59 lead. UChicago then embarked on a massive 18-1 run that put the visitors in control for the rest of the game. The Maroons made four treys during that five-minute sequence to put them ahead 77-65.
"We definitely made some big shots during that stretch," McGrath said. "More importantly we had a great stretch of defensive possessions – we were really focused at that end. That focus, and some timely Emory misses, allowed us to make the run."
McDaniel – who hails from nearby Roswell, Ga. – led the way on the court with 20 points on 67 percent shooting from the field, while adding nine rebounds and two blocks. Hopkins poured in a career-high 20 points of his own to go with eight rebounds. Senior guard Cole Schmitz tallied 18 points and nine rebounds.
For McGrath, a pair of moments stood out in his memory from the game.
"Mattia Colangelo is a pretty reserved competitor most times," McGrath said. "At one point, we had made a couple of good plays just before our big run in the second half, and Emory called a timeout. Mattia was bouncing as he came to the bench, I noticed him punching his fist in the air and saying something, but what I really noticed was how the team responded to that – both the bench and the guys on the floor.
"Something similar happened a few possessions later as Cole Schmitz dove on the floor for a loose ball and was about to force a jump ball with an Emory player," he continued. "We called a timeout to keep possession. Cole – who will never be confused with being as emotionally restrained as Mattia – bounced up and came to the bench yelling 'We are NOT losing this game.'
"The energy the team had in these moments, coupled with what seemed like 1,000 of Brennan McDaniel's friends and family cheering us on, gave the team to emotional lift to compete and win the game."
The win at Emory put UChicago back on track as the team went 5-2 to close out the schedule. Just two days later, the Maroons avenged their previous loss with a 20-point win at Rochester, and eventually closed out the year with a home victory over No. 13-ranked WashU.