GRAND FORKS, N.D. – In what may have been the best performance on the road this season, the Western Illinois men’s basketball team picked up a huge victory on Thursday, topping North Dakota 81-70 in Grand Forks.
The Leathernecks did about everything right, leading the bulk of the game while snapping a three-game losing streak and improving to 16-12 overall and 9-8 in the Summit League.
The victory locks up at least a .500 record in conference, the first time WIU has done that since the 2012-13 seasons.
“I think we were able to control the game, we didn’t put a lot of stress on ourselves and answered their runs,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “It wasn’t like we cruised, we had to answer runs, we had to deal with some adversity
“But the way Trenton played today, he put us on his back but we also had contributions from a lot of guys, Trenton especially.”
Trenton Massner had another big game against the Fighting Hawks, following up his 46-point performance against UND earlier this season inside Western Hall with a 34-point game. Massner added seven assists, six rebounds, and two steals while shooting 16-24 from the field.
“I think it’s a combination, sometimes you shoot the ball well and sometimes it’s the way they defend you,” Jeter said. “They allowed us to get downhill and it’s easier to shoot if there isn’t that shot blocker at the other end. They allowed us to get a little deeper, especially Trenton, and to finish at the rim. That’s the biggest difference, but we’ve seen when Trenton’s on, he’s on.”
While Massner had a big game, WIU spread around its balance and effort as Alec Rosner added 16, Quinlan Bennet and Vuk Stevanic each scored 10 and Jesiah West pulled down 13 boards to go with two blocks. Bennett also added eight rebounds as Western Illinois outrebounded the Fighting Hawks 44-38.
“We need contributions from all of our guys, Quinlan was able to get it going early, which is because the way they guard him, they’re daring him to shoot and he’s a better player than that,” Jeter said. “Alec, we need him to make threes, Jesiah to do his thing, guys have roles and when they play their roles to their ability, we’re tough to handle. I thought today we did that, every guy played his role.”
Foul trouble plagued the Leathernecks most of the second half, but Western was able to get huge minutes from reserves KJ Lee, Cody Collinsworth, and JJ Kalakon, who not only held the lead but extended it as well.
“They did a lot of things that don’t show up, KJ has become really consistent off the bench and even started a few games when we’ve had injuries, but we also had other guys who were crucial,” Jeter said. “JJ and Cody did a great job coming in an extending the lead, helping us get through some crucial minutes when we had foul trouble. It was good to see guys do that who maybe have not played as much this year.”
The little things were also key. Western Illinois had zero turnovers in the first half and finished with six in the game. The Leathernecks outrebounded UND 44-38, grabbing 12 offensive boards that led to 12 second-chance points. WIU also controlled the interior, scoring 48 points in the paint.
“You have to take advantage of all your opportunities, taking care of the ball is one way to do that as well as the offensive rebounding,” Jeter said. “On the road, you have to do the basic things, and taking care of the ball is one, that’s important, the offensive rebounds, we’ve seen it on both ends, we gave up too many to UMKC and that put a lot of stress on us.
“Usually, you get punished for lack of defending and giving up offensive rebounds. We did a nice job punishing North Dakota with the extra possessions and taking care of the turnovers on the road.”
The defense was also the big story as WIU not only held UND to 25-63 (39.7 percent) from the floor but more importantly, 6-22 (27.3) from three. The Fighting Hawks came into the game as one of the better three-point shooting teams in the Summit League.
Western Illinois went 34-72 (47.2 percent) from the field while leading for all but 1:19 of gameplay.
Western Illinois jumped out to a strong start, leading by double figures early, but UND stormed back to tie the game at 27-27. A 6-0 run by the Leathernecks opened the advantage and the Fighting Hawks would never draw closer than six points the rest of the game.
The Leathernecks are next in action on Saturday, playing the final regular season game of the year at North Dakota State at 1 p.m. A win on Saturday could see Western Illinois head into the Summit League Tournament as high as the three seed. The win on Thursday guarantees Western Illinois finishes conference play no worse than sixth, locking the Leathernecks into a Sunday evening game next weekend in Sioux Falls.
“It’s a good position to be in,” Jeter said. “I told the guys I’m proud to come on the road and get this win, locking up a winning season in conference, something that has not been done in a decade here. We can finish as high as third, that’s a positive and a sign the program is heading in the right direction. It wasn’t easy, nothing has been easy, but we accepted the challenges and put ourselves in a position to be as high as third is great. Now we’re going to enjoy watching the other teams (Thursday) then get ready for another big one on Saturday.”
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