SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – A cold final 10 minutes cost the Western Illinois men’s basketball team as the Leathernecks bowed out at the Summit League Tournament on Sunday, falling 67-60 to St. Thomas.
Western Illinois led 50-40 but a lid would cover the Leatherneck basket most of the final 10 minutes as the Tommies were able to survive and advance to Monday’s semifinal against Oral Roberts.
“You hate to see a season end with the ball just not going in,” WIU coach Rob Jeter said. “You watch that last 10 minutes, the ball did not go in, the free throws, the little layups, it’s not the fault of our guys, they got themselves in position, it just didn’t go in and that happen some times.
“We kept a team under 70 points, that’s a good defensive sign, but I can’t remember the last time we shot five free throws, that’s not a knock on the officials, they were good, but we only got to the line five times, so that was a big difference, that and (Andrew) Rohde at the end with dagger threes, that’s why he’s first team all-league. We put ourselves in position to win the game, I feel bad for this group, the effort was outstanding, I’d just like to see the ball go in a couple more times so they couple finish on their terms.”
The Leathernecks took a 34-30 lead into halftime and were able to push the lead to 10 at the 12 minute, 21 second mark. But St. Thomas clamped down on defense and were able to get start putting the ball in the basket.
“I think they did the same thing all game, they jammed up the paint,” Western Illinois’ Trenton Massner (10 points, eight assists, two steals, one block) said. “They always make you second-guess what you want to do, you can shoot the jump shot but you’re in-between being open or not, it’s like that the whole game. We missed a couple free throws, we get in the paint and we get sped up, that’s what they want you to do.”
Quinlan Bennett led Western Illinois with a team-high 17 points while adding seven rebounds and two steals.
“I think ‘Q’ kind of sums up our program, where we are, we’re always overlooked, always kind of like ‘OK, yeah, but maybe this, maybe that,’ and that’s earned, so we have to do more and he has to do more as well, but the cool thing is he knows it, he wants it,” Jeter said. “We have to be better as a program taking that step to being recognized for the things we do well and it starts with discipline, more consistency. We made strides, we saw that with Q down the stretch, it was more consistency.”
St. Thomas would go on a 16-6 run to tie the game, and from there, the Tommies would slowly pull away as the Leathernecks (16-14) could not buy a basket, falling behind as time ran out.
“Having a winning season is a good season, we played hard night in and night out,” Bennett said. “This is a special group, it felt like we should have went further. I did not what to lose the game, but it happens when you’re not about to make shots.”
Western Illinois ends the season at 16-14 overall, the first winning season for the program since the 2012-13 season. The fourth-place finish in the Summit League is also the best for the program since the 2012-13 season
“We’ve come a long way, this was the start of year three and there were times when we were not even invited to this tournament, so to come in as a four seed, that’s worth mentioning for this group,” Jeter said. “This group, we had COVID our first year, then we had to add quick transfers because guys move on like they do across the country, so we put this team together very quickly and each year we added pieces. I’m proud how Trenton matured, I remember his first couple weeks on campus with us, he could always score the ball but his leadership has grown, his willingness to lead and take responsibility, that was new for him but he did a phenomenal job.
“We’ll get another year with Q and this group, it’s never been our effort that was the issue, it’s more about trying to get solid with who we need to be as Leathernecks, we’re still a work in progress but we’re right on track.”
Jesiah West would finish with 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks while Vuk Stevanic added six points and a team-high three rebounds. KJ Lee finished with eight points off the bench.
WIU went 27-62 from the field, 5-17 from three and 1-5 from the free throw line while St. Thomas went 24-55, 8-19 and 11-15.