The UR men’s basketball team ended regular season play on a high note with an exciting 74-67 win at Carnegie Mellon University this past Saturday. After one of the most exhilarating seasons in school history, the team is poised and ready for a run in the NCAA tournament.
Saturday’s game against the Tartans of CMU set the men up for the opening round of the tournament, when they will host the Panthers of Middlebury College here at the Palestra on Friday night. UR will also host the first-round match-up between Farmingdale State University and Penn State-Behrend. The winners will meet for the regional final on Saturday, again at the Palestra.
The win at CMU was anchored by a career-high 24-point performance by senior forward Uche Ndubizu. Ndubizu also had 12 rebounds to round off his impressive double-double. Senior center Jon Onyiriuka added 12 points, while senior forward Dan “The Chief” Milbrand and senior guard Rob Dominiak each had 10. Dominiak’s performance included going two for four from behind the 3-point arc, giving him a regular-season total of 86 3-pointers – enough to eclipse the previous Yellowjacket record for 3-pointers in a season. The highlight of UR’s play was its rebounding, both offensive and defensive, where they out-boarded CMU 41-27 throughout the game.
The ‘Jackets, who stand at 20-5 overall and 9-5 in University Athletic Association play, find themselves ranked in the 15th spot in the top-25 poll heading into the tournament – this after they had held the nation’s top rank for over half of the season. As the preseason nine seed, UR quickly moved up the ladder to No.1 in week three, where it remained until a road loss at Emory University in week eight, on Jan. 25. The team was 14-0 at the time of its first loss.
On Saturday, the UAA title was settled as well, as University of Chicago edged out Washington University in St. Louis for the top spot. Brandeis University finished the season third in the UAA, and the ‘Jackets ended up with the conference’s fourth spot.Saturday’s win at CMU was incredibly important for the team. With a loss, the team would likely have had to go on the road for the beginning of the tournament; however, the win gave the ‘Jackets the right to host first- and second-round match-ups.
“This is a huge boost for us,” Dominiak said. “It really puts us on the right track for the tournament.”
The team knew it would be in for a tough game before it even arrived at CMU, as it was the Tartans’ senior day and CMU was an impressive 9-2 at home.
“It’s nice to get a win at CMU,” Onyiriuka said. “They’re always a tough team to play at home.”
In addition, the ‘Jackets had been struggling on the road as of late. The team had dropped its previous three away games before the win at CMU.
“It was important to get this win under our belt heading in to the postseason,” Onyiriuka said.
The win came much to the satisfaction of head coach Mike Neer, as well.
“This is the kind of game you need going into the playoffs,” Neer said.
After such an exciting season, it would be easy to take time to pause and reflect on their accomplishments, but the players know they will only succeed in the tournament by looking ahead.
“Looking back on the season, it has been an experience that I will never forget,” Onyiriuka said. “Although we would all like to be undefeated at this point in the season, the positive side to our losses is the fact that it has yet to end our season.”
Onyiriuka and his teammates know all too well that the same logic won’t hold true in the tournament.
“With that being said,” he continued, “I think, as a team, we are really focused and ready to play in the postseason.”
The ‘Jackets – especially the team’s core of five seniors – certainly don’t want to see a repeat of last year’s tournament performance. A disappointing 61-60 first-round loss to SUNY Plattsburgh on a buzzer-beater prematurely ended the season. The team will especially look for leadership from Juron and Onyiriuka, both of whom started for the ‘Jackets as freshmen in the National Title game against the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2005. They can either win and continue on the road to the Final Four or “pack their bags and plan a vacation,” as Onyiriuka eloquently put it.
Along with their five seniors, the ‘Jackets have also seen tremendous contributions from the team’s two juniors – guard Max Kaplan, who has been extremely valuable handling the ball, reflected in his 3.35 assist-to-turnover ratio, and guard Mike Chmielowiec, whose consistent scoring – he averages 12.5 points per game – has made him a focus for the team’s offense.
“It’s really great to be contributing down the home stretch,” Kaplan said. “With five seniors ahead of us, Mike and I are pretty happy with the role we have played, providing depth and dependability throughout the season.”
Members of the freshman and sophomore classes have also contributed to UR’s success this season. Freshman guard Mike Labanowski’s solid perimeter shooting has given UR one more weapon in its arsenal of shooters. Sophomore guard Brad Runco has also been a factor – he leads the team in steals, averaging 1.2 per game.
The ‘Jackets have represented the quintessential team all season long, balancing playing time with scoring. To make it to Salem, Va. for the Final Four, they will need continued strong play from the entire team.
“The real season starts on Friday,” Dominiak said.
Starr is a member of the class of 2009.