*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series 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 – At the end of its regular season every year, the University of Chicago men's basketball team knows a familiar face will be there to meet them in the finale. Washington University – St. Louis is the closest school to UChicago in the geographically-dispersed University Athletic Association, and has been an annual opponent since the mid-1980s. The conference schedule pits the two schools against each other in the first and last UAA games of the season.
"It has become a trademark rivalry game, and it is what great rivalries should be – two teams of really good guys playing excellent team basketball," said UChicago Head Coach Mike McGrath. "It is also our only conference opponent that is a regional foe. There is always a great and energetic crowd on Saturday afternoon."
The February 29, 2020 matchup would be no exception. A packed crowd in the Ratner Athletics Center gymnasium, along with pre-game Senior Day festivities, only added to the anticipation and intensity on the court. While the visitors held sway in the opening 20 minutes, the Maroons came charging back with an excellent second half to take down the No. 13-ranked Bears by a final score of 77-70.
The UChicago vs. WashU series has produced a bevy of close, dramatic games over the years. The two sides have split the last dozen meetings evenly at 6-6. Four of those games were decided by one or two points. The previous time WashU came to the Ratner Center for the season finale in 2018, the Bears were ranked No. 2 in the nation and looking to complete an undefeated run through the UAA. But the Maroons denied them that distinction with an 86-77 triumph.
Fast forward to 2020, and the Bears were positioned to clinch a conference title on the last day. They were one game clear of Emory University, who held the tiebreaker. Prior to tip-off, UChicago recognized its three-member senior class on the hardwood with their families in attendance – guards Jordan Baum, Mattia Colangelo and Cole Schmitz. Right after the ceremony, the opening whistle blew and the game was underway.
The Maroons took an early 9-7 lead thanks to a trio of three-pointers, including two from junior forward Brennan McDaniel. The advantage see-sawed back and forth, and eight minutes in, the score was tied at 18-18.
However, WashU's offense began clicking shortly afterwards, netting four-straight shots to go up 27-19. A triple courtesy of first-year forward Bryce Hopkins trimmed the deficit to 29-26. Two free throws by Schmitz pulled UChicago close again at 35-32. But the final two minutes belonged to the Bears, who took a 43-34 advantage into the halftime locker room. The visitors shot 58.6 percent from the field in the first half, led by Jack Nolan's 11 points. McDaniel countered for the Maroons with 12 points of his own.
"I was pretty nervous at halftime," McGrath said. "I thought Wash had played exceptionally well and I could see how they had improved since our earlier game. That being said, I had great confidence in our guys and our game plan. I really felt like if we stayed the course and simply played better, it would start to balance out."
The second-half momentum changed quickly early on. After two layups by WashU forward DeVaughn Rucker, UChicago roared right back to with 11-straight points to tie the game up 47-47. Baum's and-one layup kickstarted the run, which also featured two more treys from McDaniel. The Maroon junior proved to be a nightmare for the Bears; the 6-foot-6 forward frequently shed his defender in the post and slipped to the top of the arc for catch-and-shoot threes. He ended up hitting all five of his shots from deep over the course of the game.
"Brennan McDaniel got heated up from the perimeter," said McGrath. "He is such a tough match-up when that happens that it takes us to a new level offensively. That is what happened during that stretch. Additionally, we started to make some great hustle plays – Bryce Hopkins was great on the boards and defensively. Those aspects really picked up our energy."
The Maroons looked confident on both ends of the floor, while the Bears struggled to regain their footing. Colangelo put up five points on two possessions to give UChicago a 55-52 lead that the hosts would not relinquish the rest of the way.
Each time the visitors had a chance to tie up the proceedings, the Maroons responded in kind. The WashU offense lost its rhythm in the crucial stretches of the game, stopping its ball movement in favor of isolation plays that were shut down by UChicago's defense. Over a stretch of seven-and-a-half minutes, the Bears were limited to a mere two field goals scored. WashU only tallied six assists in the final box score compared to 16 by the hosts.
UChicago salted the game away at the free throw line in the final 90 seconds to close out the seven-point victory. McDaniel led the scoring attack with 23 points, followed by Hopkins' 13 points and team-high nine rebounds off the bench. Colangelo and Schmitz contributed nine points each, with Colangelo posting a game-high five assists.
In the final stats, the Maroons hit 12 of 30 from three-point range (40 percent) compared to 8 of 24 by WashU (33 percent). The Bears committed 14 turnovers that were converted into 21 points the other way.
The emotional victory in the closing game of the season completed a 5-2 finish for the Maroons, who knocked off a pair of top-15 teams during that time as well.
"There was incredible joy," McGrath said. "It had been a long season and we'd had our challenges. We showed that 12 players and coaches who truly care about one another, keep working and don't hang their heads, and play good basketball can accomplish wonderful things."