After suffering back-to-back losses on Jan. 27 and 29, the men’s basketball team appeared vulnerable. They had lost five of their last seven games, all to University Athletic Association rivals, and all on the road. The two most recent defeats came at the hands of midwest powers, as the No. 25-ranked Washington University in St. Louis Bears did away with the ’Jackets, 83-78 in Missouri, and two days later, the University of Chicago Maroons edged the visitors, 96-92.
Yet for the Yellowjackets, there truly is no place like home. Undefeated at the Palestra this winter and having won two early-season tournament titles in Rochester (the Chuck Resler Tournament and the UR/Holiday Inn Airport Tournament), the team sought to continue their home-court dominance and snap their losing streak this past weekend. Suitably, it was the same two foes — the Bears and the Maroons — who would challenge the ’Jackets on Friday, Feb. 3 and Sunday, Feb. 5, respectively.
Junior John DiBartolomeo, the reigning UAA player of the year, paced a superior UR shooting effort that saw five Yellowjackets reach double figures in the game against Wash U. DiBartolomeo’s 27 points were a game-high, and the guard also dished out eight assists — most of them to sophomore Nate Vernon (19 points), senior Nate Novosel (11 points), freshman Kevin Sheehy (11 points) and junior Rob Reid (10 points) — to create a well-balanced attack the Bears simply couldn’t fend off. The ’Jackets shot an impressive 53 percent from the floor in the first half and an even more astounding 64 percent from the three-point range to put the home team up by 11 at halftime.
The UR attack continued to run up the scoreboard early in the second half. Two free throws by senior Marcus Williams capped a run that stretched the ’Jackets lead to 20, to the roar of a legion of yellow and blue-clad fans. Wash U. responded with a 10-2 run of its own, which brought the Bears to within seven points. That did not matter, though, as three UR players sank free throws to put the lead out of the visitors’ reach.
The Yellowjackets carved out a second win during the weekend in a similar fashion when they played host to the Maroons. The home team took early control of the game, building a nine point cushion on the heels of a 13-2 run that put the ’Jackets up, 17-8, early in the first half. The teams swapped blows for the remainder of the half, with the ’Jackets’ lead slowly growing to 13 by halftime (38-25). The story of the ’Jackets’ game up to that point, however, wasn’t in their offensive exploits, but their defensive ones. The home team had succeeded in holding Matt Johnson, the lead scorer in the conference, to a measly two points in the first half.
The Maroons came out firing to open the second half, as Chicago’s Michael Sustarsic hit back-to-back three-pointers to cut the ’Jackets lead to seven. Continued UR defensive pressure prevented Chicago from doing more damage until the game’s final five minutes, however, when Derrick Davis capped a Maroons’ offensive burst that brought the visitors within one point of the home team.
DiBartolomeo and senior Chris Dende made back-to-back jumpers to give the Yellowjackets a five-point lead, but Sustarsic returned with his red-hot shooting outside the arc to bring the margin to two with 18 seconds to play.
In a last-ditch effort to claim the game, the Maroons chose to put their faith in the talented Johnson. His attempted hurl at the buzzer from beyond half court missed, however, giving the ’Jackets the win.
The men’s team has now won 17 straight regular season home games, as well as 13 straight against UAA opponents at the Palestra — a streak dating back to the 2009-10 season. The team will face a true test on Friday, Feb. 10, when they host Brandeis University, who fended off the ’Jackets 78-64 earlier this season.