Western Courier

Champs!

Garrick Hodge

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Five years.

That’s how long it took Western Illinois men’s basketball coach Jim Molinari to build the Leathernecks into Summit League champions.

After taking over at the start of the 2008-09 season, Molinari endured three consecutive losing seasons. It wasn’t until the 2011-12 season that Western saw the rebuilding process come to fruition, as it achieved an 18-15 overall record and made the Summit League Championship game last March.

However, South Dakota State defeated the Leathernecks in the championship 52-50 in overtime, leaving a bitter taste in their mouths.

“When we first came here, Ceola (Clark) and the other guys told me we had a shot with the group of guys we had coming in,” said senior center Terell Parks. “We just believed; we knew last year we had a chance to win the whole thing, and we fell short one game. We knew coming into this year we’d be one of the favorites, we were picked fourth and we knew we were better than that.”

Entering Saturday’s contest against South Dakota, the Leathernecks were 20-7 overall, and would win a share of the conference title with South Dakota State if victorious.

The Leathernecks defeated the Coyotes 61-59, not only locking up a share of the title — the first regular season title in the Leathernecks’ Division I history — but also set a program record for best regular season record (Division I era).

“What a great night for Western Illinois University and our basketball program,” Molinari said. “It’s always been hard — for five years, there have been ups and downs. The way it‘ll culminate, with a regular season championship, it‘s just terrific how it worked out and it was probably fitting it came down to the last possession.”

After battling injuries and the frustration of a few losing seasons, senior point guard Clark — who was granted a sixth year of eligibility in the offseason — couldn’t help but get a little emotional in the post-game press conference.  

“It means so much,” Clark said. “It’s a dream come true. Being here with all the coaches and going through the struggles we’ve been through, we’re now finally seeing that all our hard work has paid off. I wouldn’t rather do it with anyone else then with these guys, the staff and the fans. I just want to thank all of them.”

Following the Leathernecks’ win, some of the 5,089 fans in attendance (the second largest crowd in Western Hall history) stormed the court. Most of the players stayed out to celebrate, except Clark, who said that he didn’t want to risk injury although he understood the excitement.“

“(I heard what Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said), that fans shouldn’t be storming the court like that, and I (took off) just trying to stay out of harm‘s way. But it’s fun seeing the fans storm the court like that because they’re just as much a part of this as us.”  

Perhaps no one appreciated the crowd support more than Molinari, who has seen a drastic rise in attendance at home games recently. After only drawing 1,182 fans last year, Western averaged 2,454 fans a game this season, including three games with over 4,000 fans in attendance.         

“The energy the crowd gave us was terrific,” Molinari said. “That makes this night as special as anything. To have 5,000 people, that‘s really what you have to do to have a good college basketball program and win a tough game — you have to have them, because it gives you energy and intimidates the other team.”

Even though Western has accomplished a number of things already this season, there is still one more goal the Leathernecks share: win the Summit League Tournament this weekend and earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

“It’s a second season now,”  senior Don McAvoy said. “We have the conference regular season championship, and there’s one more we want to get. We have a bad taste in our mouth from last year, so we don’t want anything like that to happen again.”

Western will be a No. 2 seed in the tournament this weekend (the Jackrabbits own the tiebreaker) and face South Dakota on Saturday at 8:30 p.m.

“We’ve got more work to do,” Molinari said. “We’re going to have to get better this week and then go back and play this team again in an unfriendly atmosphere. But the reality of it is, I’m a big regular season champion person too. Because that’s what you do over the course of six months.

You don’t just get hot one weekend, you have to grind it out. This one ranks right up there for me, because of when we took over and built this together where the program was at (at the time).”

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.
Champs!