Swinging forward: After a disappointing ending, Western is poised for a momentous 2014 season

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Aaron Viner

A new culture was established in Western Hall this season.

The Western Illinois men’s basketball team entered the 2012-13 season after narrowly missing a trip to the NCAA tournament in the previous season and responded with one of the most successful seasons in the program’s Division I history.

“After last year, and almost making the tournament, we just worked our butts off all summer and preseason, and broke all these records,” senior forward Jack Houpt said. “We weren’t expected to do that and we were better than I ever would have thought.”

Over the course of the season, the Leathernecks broke numerous records, earning 22 wins (the most ever as a Division I program) and the longest winning streak in its Division I history (11), en route to earning the program’s first ever share of the conference championship. 

“It was a great way to go out individually and as a team, breaking historical records,” sixth-year senior guard Ceola Clark said. “I can’t think of all of them off the top of my head, but I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out besides winning a (tournament) championship. My career and the group of guys that I played with here have been great.”

This season, Clark broke the program record for career 3-pointers made and starts in a Leatherneck uniform. 

The Leathernecks’ season started off with a scare when the team lost an exhibition match to Missouri S&T, a Division II school, 61-60 on a last second 3-pointer. Many fans were worried about the team, but head coach Jim Molinari credited the team’s lack of identity for the loss. 

“(The loss showed) if we don’t play to our identity, we can lose to anyone, but if we play to our identity we can beat anyone,” Molinari said. 

After the loss, the team used that game as motivation going into the regular season. 

“It was a huge wake up call,” Houpt said. “It told the new guys we were in college and everyone can play now. It woke us up and got us ready for the season. We started practicing harder, working out harder, and doing everything harder to get ready for the real games. When it really starts counting, we can’t be screwing around.”

The Leathernecks didn’t screw around at the beginning of the season, winning 14 of their first 17 games, including the record-winning streak, which included six conference games. 

“What we established during the 11-game streak was our ability to win close games and it gave us confidence,” Molinari said. “When you start the conference on the road and win a few close games, it says a lot about your team.” 

Those 11 wins in a row eclipsed the entire win total from the 2010-11 men’s basketball season. Both Clark and Houpt were a part of that team, and Houpt said the turnaround has been tremendous.

“Coming in here two years ago and only winning seven games, then picking up 22 this year, it’s a huge turnaround,” Houpt said. “It’s a blast playing with these guys and such high character teammates. We couldn’t have done it without every one of these guys.”

The game that ended the win streak was a conference tournament championship rematch against South Dakota State at Western Hall, but the game drew more than 4,000 fans — a number that hadn’t been reached in years. 

“The other thing that was special this year, was to see the great interest,” Molinari said. “We had crowds of over four and five thousand, which is a building block for a program. I hope we build a university ego, where we are all proud to be Leathernecks.

“My real enjoyment for all this is what it means to the players. I believe we lost this game to South Dakota State because we were overwhelmed. It was a hard adjustment to see that type of crowd.”

The Leathernecks only conference blemishes were two games against South Dakota State and against Oakland, to finish 13-3 in the Summit League, good for a share of the regular season title. 

However, the regular season ended with another frightening moment. In a non-conference matchup on Feb. 23, senior center Terell Parks, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, went down with a foot injury and didn’t see the court again during the season.

Western was able to rally without Parks in the lineup in the final two games in the regular season, due to impressive performances by junior Michael Ocherobia and Clark. 

In the Summit League tournament, Western, as a No. 2 seed, was able to squeak by South Dakota, 54-53, but complete disaster struck in the semifinal game against North Dakota State.

Western trailed by nine points with 9:20 to play and Clark went down screaming in pain, when he tore his ACL. The Leathernecks scored seven consecutive points after the injury but could not overtake the Bison, and got knocked out of the tournament.

“It was really tough (to see),” Houpt said. “Those two (injuries) were probably the toughest moments of my basketball career. Both of those guys have put so much into this program, especially Ceola. It was terrible playing without them, because Ceola is Western basketball. 

“It was also a hard time because I was worried about them personally. For Ceola, it‘s going to be (another) surgery on his knee, and Terell has so much going for him for the future. I wouldn’t sacrifice their (health) for another win for their careers.” 

Molinari said he was impressed with how the team handled the loss of its two stars.

“When we lost Terell, we probably also lost realistic hopes of our NCAA run,” Molinari said. “The loss of Ceola obviously sealed the deal. That was a disappointment, but to me it also showed people could step up. We won three games in a row so we could win a conference championship.” 

The Leathernecks earned a bid in their second consecutive College Basketball Invitational playing against Big Ten opponent Purdue. Despite a fast start, they lost 81-67. 

Looking at the future, the Leathernecks saw a lot of young players see playing time at the end of the season due to the injuries, and players like sophomore Remy Roberts-Burnett step up to a leadership role. 

“Throughout the whole season, I was able to see how well Remy and (junior forward Adam Link) played, because they were a big reason for our success this year,” Clark said. “When they saw me and Terell being out for the Purdue game, they really stepped up. I told them this was going to be the basis of the team next year so you guys have to be one of the leaders out there.” 

Clark also noted how hard it was not being able to play in the postseason tournament.

“It was real tough,“ Clark said. “Any time I’m away from my teammates is tough, especially being on the sideline and not on the court. I tried to lead by talking to those guys every timeout and instructing them and let them explore their game.”

The Leathernecks changed the culture at Western, but according to Molinari, the work is not done.

“Our goal is to make the next step. We had a tremendous season, but our goal is to make the NCAA tournament, and we have work to do and things to achieve.” 

Twitter: @AaronViner