Emory men’s basketball entered its weekend homestand hotter than an Atlanta midsummer’s day. Rolling off a 10-game win streak, the Eagles hoped to stretch that to 12 in their games against University of Chicago (Ill.) and No. 2 Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) Jan. 27 and Jan. 28, respectively. The No. 13 Eagles sank the UChicago Maroons Friday night 71-66 thanks to 31 points from freshman phenom point guard Romin Williams, but were humbled 84-67 Sunday at the hands of a disciplined WashU team that dished the Eagles their first loss since Dec. 2.
Emory opened the weekend homestand against a struggling UChicago team. Though the Maroons entered Friday’s contest at 7-9 on the season, the team had more than enough fight to worry the streaking Eagles. At the start of the month, UChicago narrowly fell to current University Athletic Association (UAA) leader WashU by a score of 79-78.
UChicago jumped ahead early against Emory, claiming a seven-point lead at halftime. Strong presence on the boards and a solid performance from the UAA’s second leading scorer, senior guard Jake Fenlon (16.9 ppg), gave the Maroons the early edge.
But by the final buzzer, the story of Friday’s game was not rebounding, nor was it Fenlon, who finished with 19 points. Friday was about Romin Williams.
“[Williams] is one of those guys that doesn’t have to get in rhythm; he is in rhythm all the time,” Head Coach Jason Zimmerman said. “He can miss like 10 in a row and then make his next 10.”
Williams, who scored 31 points on 10-19 shooting from the field, including 5-8 from behind the three-point line, sparked the Eagles to their 11th consecutive victory.
“The amount of energy and firepower that [Williams] has been able to give to our team at such an early time, with me and our group of guys being seniors … it’s really been incredible,” senior forward Adam Gigax said.
The team’s 15-2 season record tied for the program’s second-best record ever through 17 games, according to Emory Athletics, short only of the Eagles’ 1989-90 16-1 record.
Emory returned to the WoodPEC Sunday afternoon with sole possession of first-place in the UAA on the line, both Emory and WashU tied at 6-0. Meeting the teams at the WoodPEC was a bustling home crowd of 675 people decked out in white T-shirts for a coordinated “whiteout.”
“[The crowd] was unbelievable,” Rapp said. “Having that many people in the gym … it gives us juice, it gives us energy to have people rooting for us.”
Given the high stakes, it was no surprise that both teams came out a tad choppy. The two UAA leaders combined for 15 turnovers in the first half alone.
WashU found its rhythm first, largely behind a brilliant first half from senior forward Matt Highsmith. His 17 first-half points fueled a potent WashU offense that got the better of Emory’s defense in Sunday’s matchup.
The Bears built a 26-18 lead around the eight-minute mark. That’s when the two teams provided the game’s best sequence of play, as Gigax and Highsmith went toe-to-toe for five consecutive three-point bombs.
“You see one go in and the basket seems a little bit bigger,” Gigax said. “My teammates did a really good job finding me when WashU’s defense was sort of in a help position.”
Following a steal from senior point guard Whit Rapp, the ball found its way to a trailing Gigax for a deep three, cutting the lead to five. On the Eagles’ next possession, a pump fake from Gigax gave him space to drill another three, making it 27-24 Bears.
Highsmith was not to be out-played. He answered Gigax with a three of his own on the next possession. Gigax responded by pulling up from DUC-ling range to make it a three-point game once again. But Highsmith simply wouldn’t allow the Eagles to gain ground. Yet another three from the Papa Bear pushed the lead back to six, 33-27.
That three set the tone for the remainder of the half. The Bears dominated the final five minutes of play, capping it off with a buzzer-beater three from WashU senior guard Kevin Kucera that gave the Bears a 51-33 halftime lead.
Needing a strong start to the second half, the Eagles instead came out flat-footed. Costly turnovers fused with WashU’s execution in transition made for a lethal combination. The Bears built a 25-point lead through just the first three minutes of play in the second half.
“We weren’t great today,” Zimmerman said. “The coaching staff, I wasn’t great, the players weren’t great. We need to be better if we are going to beat [WashU].”
Though the Eagles clawed back to within 12 points with six minutes remaining, WashU’s experienced starting five denied any attempt to cut the lead to single digits. The starting squad, composed of seniors Kucera, guard Jake Knupp, forward Andrew Sanders and center David Schmelter, combined for 80 of the Bears’ 84 points, with UAA scoring leader Sanders (17.4 ppg) and Highsmith tying for a game-high 19 points.
“From the get-go we weren’t too ready to go,” Rapp said. “It took a while for us to get used to [WashU’s] physicality, to get used to the pace of the game.”
Emory’s Williams wasn’t the same player Sunday, coughing up a game-high five turnovers to go along with 13 points. Gigax led the team in scoring with 18 points, while Avant tallied 12 boards.
Most evident was the impact of Rapp. Though quiet in the box score with only six points and five assists (along with three turnovers), Rapp’s composure with the ball in his hands was critical to the Eagles’ performance Sunday. After Rapp left the first half due to foul trouble at the 7:22 mark, WashU went on a 24-12 run to close the half. When Rapp returned to the floor at the start of the second half, he faced a monstrous 18-point deficit. In a game that was dominated by the Bears, while Rapp was on the floor, the Eagles were bested by a mere three points.
The Eagles, carrying a 15-3 record, will do an about-face next weekend when they travel to meet WashU and UChicago once again. Games in Chicago Feb. 2 and St. Louis Feb. 4 will offer Emory the chance to reclaim at least a share of the UAA lead which, for now, belongs to WashU.