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Momentous month

Tom Loftus Sports Editor

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Although it now has lost its last three straight games, the Western Illinois men’s basketball team seemed almost unstoppable during a stretch over winter break, winning 5 of 6 games at one point.

Following, in reverse chronological order, is a recap of the games that the Leathernecks played while most Western students were away from Macomb:

ORAL ROBERTS 71, WESTERN 70 (2 OT)

(Jan. 12 at Macomb, Ill.)

If ever a loss proved as much as a win, the last-second defeat that Western Illinois suffered last Thursday night clearly demonstrated just how good the Leathernecks can be.

Oral Roberts needed a free throw – stemming from a foul called against perhaps the league’s best player as the shot clock expired at the end of the second overtime period – to beat Western Illinois 71-70 before 1,029 emotionally drained fans at Western Hall.

Ceola Clark (a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists), Obi Emegano (17 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals), Terell Parks (16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in just 22 minutes) and David Gebru (11 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks), who turned in a remarkable relief performance after Parks into early foul trouble, were the near-heroes for Western in its so-close-and-yet-so-far loss.

“It’s something we can build on,” Clark said afterward. “There’s no such thing as moral victories, but (we’ve) got guys that step it up.

The Leathernecks came within an eyelash of one of their biggest wins in program history, even with its big man (Parks) on the bench for over half the game, its floor leader (Clark) missing for several second-half minutes due to illness, its versatile sixth man (Remy Roberts-Burnett) just getting his feet wet with 17 minutes of floor time after missing five games with a head injury, and guard Billy Molinari, one of the team’s top outside scoring threats, out for the season with a knee injury.

“It was a great game,” said Leathernecks head coach Jim Molinari. “I feel bad for our guys. We really fought; we did everything well, we just couldn’t get over the hump. They’re obviously an outstanding team; we just have to keep fighting for respect.”

The Leathernecks held Oral Roberts to 49 points after the initial 40 minutes of regulation time.

Unfortunately, stopping league superstar Dominque Morrison, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound forward who has attracted the attention of NBA scouts, was nearly impossible. Morrison, the only player to play all 50 minutes, led all scorers with 27 points, added 6 rebounds and 2 steals, and had the ball in his hands as both the shot and game clocks were winding down in the Saturday’s second overtime period.

WESTERN 75, IPFW 65

(Jan. 7 at Fort Wayne, Ind.)

Behind a team-best 21 points from junior forward Jack Houpt, Western Illinois rolled to a 10-point road victory.

“It was a great week, I can’t say enough,” said Leathernecks coach Jim Molinari. “Suffering always leads to perseverance and a lot of people associate this program with suffering through our (coach, his staff and players) first three years here.”

The last time Western earned 3 straight Summit League victories was at the end of the 2009-10 season when they rattled off 4 wins in a row.

“To win games on the road you have to get consistent effort, and shoot the ball well, and in both of these games (at Oakland and at IPFW) we shot the ball well,” Molinari said.

Houpt hit 7 3-point field goals, the most any Leatherneck has made in a single game this season.

WESTERN 71, OAKLAND 61

(Jan. 5 at Rochester, Mich.)

After a back-and-forth first-half that left Western Illinois and Oakland tied at intermission 33-33, the Leathernecks picked up the intensity in the second half to claim a 10-point win.

“We had tremendous senior leadership tonight,” said Western coach Jim Molinari. “Tommie (Tyler) set the tone early. He was not going to be denied, and was very verbal. Ceola (Clark) handled the ball well and had a typical stat line. It was just a great effort by those guys. Then you have Terell (Parks) who is becoming so dominant too, and I thought Obi (Emegano) made some good shots as well.”

The road win over Oakland marks the fifth-ever against the Golden Grizzlies, and the first since Feb. 8, 2007 when the Leathernecks defeated Oakland on the road.

Clark (19 points, 6 assists), Tyler (16 points), Parks (16 points) and Emegano (11) paced Western on offense.

WESTERN 67, SOUTH DAKOTA 44

(Jan. 3 at Macomb, Ill.)

After leading just 28-27 at the halftime, the Leathernecks outscored South Dakota 39-17 in the second half on its way to a 67-44 Summit League victory.

“The second half looked like how Western Illinois basketball needs to look,” said Leathernecks coach Jim Molinari. “We took care of the ball and took good shots on the offense end.”

Freshman forward Obi Emegano led Western in scoring for the sixth time this season, scoring 20 points on 9 of 12 shooting, while senior guard Ceola Clark III added 19 points, 7 assists and 3 steals. Junior forward Terell Parks finished with 10 points, 6 of which came from dunks, and 9 rebounds.

IUPUI 75, WESTERN 68

(Dec. 30 at Indianapolis, Ind.)

A second-half surge by the host Jaguars proved too much for Western to overcome, as Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis held off the Leathernecks, 75-68, on Friday, Dec. 30 in Summit League action in front of 1,045 fans at The Jungle in Indianapolis.

Western managed to hold NCAA Division I active scoring leader Alex Young to 15 points, below the 6-foot-6 senior forward’s season average of 19.4, but three other Jaguars – led by senior guard Stephen Thomas’ 18 – scored in double figures to lead IUPUI (currently 8-10, 2-4) to its fifth straight win, all at home. The Leathernecks, who had won six of their last eight, fell to 6-5, 1-2 at that point, but have since won 3 straight to improve to 8-5, 3-2. Western is 6-1 at home, but just 2-4 on the road.

After trailing 40-36 at intermission, Western saw the Jaguars go on a 16-2 run to open the second half, holding the Leathernecks without a field goal (0 for 12) for 9 minutes and 12 seconds to open up a 56-38 lead.

Western then began to mount a comeback, scoring 11 straight at one point and pulling within 7 at 62-55 on a jumper by junior Terell Parks with 3:47 left. The Leathernecks could only match the Jaguars point for point after that, however, despite 6 points from guard Tommie Tyler in the game’s final minute.

Parks, who had missed much of Western’s previous game with the flu, was a force to be reckoned with on both offense (9 of 12 from the floor, 19 points) and defense (9 rebounds, 3 blocks).

Obi Emegano, Parks’ freshman frontcourt mate, added 17 points and 4 rebounds. Guard Ceola Clark was Western’s ironman once again, playing 39 minutes and producing 14 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists, while Tyler came off the bench to contribute 16 points and 4 rebounds. However, the other six Western players who saw action, including starters Jack Houpt and Jalen Packer, combined for just 2 points and 6 rebounds.

The Leathernecks, currently ninth out of 10 league teams in terms of 3-point field goals made (54), were just 3 of 15 from long distance against the Jaguars, missing their first 11 shots from beyond the arc. Western shot 46.3 percent from the floor overall.

IUPUI, meanwhile, connected on 7 of 13 3-pointers, and shot 49.1 percent from the floor.

The Leathernecks rank first in the Summit League in scoring defense, allowing foes just 59.4 points per game, but are last in the league in scoring offense, putting up just 64.7 points per contest on average.

WESTERN 73, EUREKA COLLEGE 52

(Dec. 27 at Macomb, Ill.)

The pesky 3-point shooting of Eureka College forward Dustin Fritsch kept things interesting for a while, but only until Obi Emegano took his game to a new level.

Emegano, a 6-foot-3 freshman forward, scored 15 second-half points to finish with a game-high 25, helping the Leathernecks coast to a 21-point victory over the small (766-student) Christian college team.

“I felt like I could score tonight,” Emegano said. “(But) our (team) confidence comes from our defense.”

“Obi talked me into letting him stay home for Christmas,” said Western head coach Jim Molinari, adding with a smile, “There’s a good chance I’ll let him stay home (for Christmas) again next year.”

The victory was the sixth in their last eight games for the Leathernecks, who had not accomplished that feat since the 2001-02 season.

Emegano, mired in early foul trouble, failed to score in Western’s previous game against North Dakota, but seemed determined early on to show off his “A” game against the Red Devils.

Western started slowly, trailing 11-7 and 21-18, before turning it on to take a 30-23 halftime lead. Emegano scored 6 straight points at one point, including a steal and all-the-way layup. By intermission, 10 Leathernecks had seen playing time, with junior reserve forward Don McAvoy contributing 5 points in his 8 minutes.

Missing in action, however, was Western’s sixth man, talented and energetic freshman guard Remy Roberts-Burnett, who was recovering from an inadvertent elbow to the head he incurred during a recent practice.

And virtually MIA was the team’s big man, Terell Parks, the leading rebounder in the Summit League. Parks, suffering from the flu, toughed it out during 14 first-half minutes, but was clearly not his usual thundering self. The 6-foot-7 junior center-forward played just 2 minutes after intermission and finished with 2 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists.

Fritsch, a 6-foot-6 junior who came into the game averaging a team-high 18.9 points for Eureka (currently 6-6), proved more dangerous on the boards than from the floor in the first half, pulling down 9 defensive rebounds but scoring just 3 points in the first 20 minutes.

When Fritsch canned a 3-pointer to start the second half, cutting Western’s lead to 30-26, Emegano and guards Ceola Clark and Tommie Tyler energized their team – and the crowd – with a rapid series of electrifying plays.

First, Tyler – who finished with 8 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 block and 1 steal – the drove the lane and scored, assisted by Emegano. After a Red Devils turnover, Clark (6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals) popped in a 3-pointer from the side off of a pass from Tyler.

Fritsch proceeded to miss a 3-pointer, and Emegano scored on a layup on the other end. After another Eureka turnover, David Gebru put in a rebound of an Emegano miss, and suddenly, Western was up, 39-26.

From there, the Leathernecks continued to pile up their lead, slowly but surely.

Unlike in their previous game, a runaway 22-point victory over visiting North Dakota, which featured several crowd-pleasing dunks and long-range shots, Western seemed content to simply wear down the Red Devils, using their bench, size and superior talent to secure the victory.

“Eureka’s a hard team to play,” Molinari said. “They spread it out. They’re going to win a lot of games at their level. Teams like that are never out of it.”

McAvoy, who finished with a new personal season high of 14 points and 4 rebounds, scored Western’s final 4 points, on a pair of free throws and a drive in the lane. Including McAvoy, nine of 10 players reached the scoring column for the Leathernecks, who got 22 points from their bench. Eureka’s reserves, meanwhile, scored just 5 points.

After shooting a lukewarm 37 percent from the floor in the first half, Western stepped it up in the second half, hitting 50 percent of its shots and finishing 25 of 57 (43.9 percent) for the night. Eureka, meanwhile, shot 36.7 percent (18 of 49) from the floor.

Besides Omegano and McAvoy, forward Jack Houpt was the only other Leatherneck in double figures, scoring 10 points and adding 3 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals. Freshman guard Jalen Packer was perfect from the floor (1 for 1) and the line (2 for 2) for Western in his 12 minutes of playing time, chipping in a rebound and an assist for good measure.

Fritsch finished with a double-double – 11 points and 11 rebounds – to lead the Red Devils, while teammate Rian Nailor also scored 11, and Jordan Kindred added 10 points and a game-high 6 assists.

WESTERN 68, NORTH DAKOTA 46

(Dec. 22 at Macomb, Ill.)

The best-kept secret in NCAA men’s basketball unveiled a new secret weapon of sorts on Dec. 22, and in so doing, took another big step toward gaining the kind of recognition that demands national respect.

With a few more one-sided victories like the 68-46 laugher that the Western Illinois men’s basketball team dropped on North Dakota at Western Hall, fans, analysts and teams unlucky enough to have Western on their schedule may quickly find themselves thinking twice about where the balance of power lies in the Summit League this season.

“Coach Mo (Western head coach Jim Molinari) gave us a great pregame speech tonight that helped us realize that we are a good team,” said Leathernecks senior guard Tommie Tyler. “Everywhere we go, we have to act like we belong there.”

While Tyler, fellow senior guard Ceola Clark and junior forward Terell Parks were their usual dynamic selves at both ends of the court, Western also unveiled a new “secret weapon”: Don McAvoy.

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound junior forward, a transfer from Black Hawk College in tiny Galva, Ill., hit a trio of first-half 3-pointers and finished with a season-high 11 points. McAvoy ranks seventh in scoring average (3.5) and eighth in minutes played (97) for Western this season.

With sharpshooting sophomore guard Billy Molinari sidelined for the season with an injury, having another outside scoring threat to go with Clark and forward Jack Houpt can only make the defensive-minded Leathernecks that much more dangerous.

“It was unfortunate that Billy went down,” Clark said. “I think that everybody on our team just felt that we all had to step up and contribute. We all had to put in the load for Billy.

“Don was big today,” Clark added. “Throughout the season, he’s made some big shots.”

“It was good to help my team out, get a little energy off the bench,” McAvoy said.

Unlike in some other recent contests, in which they have fallen behind early, Western got off to a fast start against the Fighting Sioux. A 3-pointer by Clark from the corner, off a pass from Remy Roberts-Burnett, put the Leathernecks up 10-2.

A pair of free throws by junior guard Jordan Allard (8 points, 6 rebounds) pulled North Dakota to within 4 points at 17-13.

The Leathernecks then cranked it up a notch, outscoring the Fighting Sioux 20-6 in the last 9:55 of the half, with North Dakota’s only field goal during that stretch coming on a drive in the lane by Allard with 1:34 left. McAvoy nailed a pair of fade-away 3-point jumpers during that run, Clark and Houpt also converted from long range, and a ferocious slam dunk by Parks, off of a rebound of a miss by Antwan Watson, brought the crowd to its feet.

Obi Emegano found himself in quick foul trouble, picking up No. 3 on an offensive foul with 12:36 to play in the half, and his effectiveness would be limited after that. The freshman starting forward rode the bench for the remainder of the half, and finished with just 18 minutes of playing time, 0 points and 1 rebound.

Just as they have done all season, however, other Leathernecks stepped up and filled the void.

After the Fighting Sioux – who currently own a 6-9 record – scored the first 6 points to start the second half, Parks got Western back on track with a successful drive to the basket by Parks, who was fouled by Brandon Brekke. Parks completed the 3-point play, and Western was up, 40-25.

“We don’t lose our confidence when we can’t score,” Molinari said. “We’re used to that. We lose our confidence when we can’t stop the other team.”

North Dakota then went on an 13-5 run, led by 3-pointers from starting guard Josh Schuler and reserve forward Spencer Goodman, to pull within 7 points at 45-38.

After a Leathernecks timeout with 10:09 left, scrappy guard Tommie Tyler took over.

Over the next 4:09, Tyler drove to the lane three times, drawing fouls each time, and also nailed a clutch 3-pointer as the 35-second shot clock expired, giving Western a 55-42 lead and producing a roar from the small (426) but enthusiastic crowd.

“Having (our) guys shooting well (from outside) like that opens up the lanes for me,” Tyler said. “So that’s opportunities for me – that’s opportunities opened up for everybody.”

“Me and Tommy are leaders, and he really stepped up tonight as a leader,” Clark said. “When we really needed a basket, or we needed somebody to create something, I think (Tommy) did an excellent job tonight, drawing a foul, or just driving and kicking, just a great job. He really showed his leadership tonight.”

“Tommy really likes to win, and he knows his role,” Molinari said. “He’s a warrior. That’s all I can say about him. He’s just been raised right, and he’s really tough.”

Guard Josh Schuler popped in one last 3-pointer to quiet the fans and pull the Fighting Sioux to within 10 points at 55-45, but then it was Parks’ turn.

Three straight drives to the basket by Parks, three North Dakota fouls and 4 free throws later, Western was up, 59-45. A Houpt 3-pointer, a pair of Tyler free throws, a Clark buzzer-beater layup and a shot from the corner by Jalen Packer were just icing on Western’s victory cake.

“I (told) Terell, ‘You’re a double-double guy, and I haven’t been around many double-double guys in my years of college basketball,'” Molinari – who has been coaching college basketball since 1979 – said of his versatile junior forward, who finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals.

In addition to McAvoy and Parks, twoe other players hit for double figures for Western: Clark (15 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds 2 steals) and Tyler (11 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal). Houpt and Roberts-Burnett each scored 6 for the Leathernecks.

Sophomore guard Aaron Anderson, who entered the game with the third-highest field-goal percentage (54.9) in the Great West Conference, was just 4 of 10 from the floor for North Dakota for 11 points, and was the only Fighting Sioux player in double figures. Anderson also turned the ball over 6 times.

ILLINOIS-CHICAGO 57, WESTERN 56

(Dec. 19 at Chicago, Ill.)

One of the toughest tasks for any basketball team to complete is to hold off a hard-charging team down the stretch on its home court.

On Dec. 19 at the UIC Pavilion, Western Illinois discovered that it still has some work to do in that regard.

Leading by 8 points (55-47) with just 2:25 to play, the Leathernecks were outscored 10-1 the rest of the way in dropping a 1-point heartbreaker to the Flames (now 5-11).

With Western clinging to a 1-point lead, Flames junior point guard Gary Talton stole an inbound pass, drove the floor and scored the game-winning layup with 3.2 seconds left. The turnover was only the sixth one committed by the Leathernecks in the game.

Talton, who finished with 15 points and 6 assists, scored the game’s final 7 points.

“That ranks among my top five all-time toughest losses to take,” Leathernecks coach Jim Molinari said later. “We did so many good things … but when you just can’t make a free throw, you put some pressure on yourself.”

Although it hit nearly half (12 of 25) of its field goals after intermission, Western was just 4 of 12 from the line in the second half

UIC guard Daniel Barnes led all scorers with 22 points, while 6-foot-9, 269-pound senior Flames center Darrin Williams added 13 points and 7 rebounds.

Senior guard Ceola Clark paced Western with 17 points, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range, and also had 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals while playing 39 of the game’s 40 minutes. Junior forward Terell Parks contributed 14 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots, while freshman forward Obi Emegano had 9 points.

UIC stormed out to an 11-2 lead and led 30-17 with 2:32 to go in the opening half. Led by Clark, Western then caught fire, outscoring the Flames 9-2 the rest of the half, as Clark dropped in a pair of 3-pointers and added 2 free throws.

As has been their tendency this season, Western came out a bit flat to start the second half, with UIC increasing its lead to 39-30 after four minutes of play. The Leathernecks then pulled to within 4 points, as Clark hit another long shot.

A trio of baskets by reserve guard Remy Roberts-Burnett and a slam dunk by Parks tied the game at 43-43. Another 3-pointer by Clark put Western up 50-45 with less than eight minutes to play, and sophomore center David Gebru put the Leathernecks up 52-45 with a tough shot underneath.

Talton then hit a 3-pointer, a basket plus a foul shot, and his game-winning layup in the game’s final 1:16 to give the Flames the win.

UIC head coach Howard Moore and assistant coach Al Biancalana once coached for Molinari at Bradley.

“Tonight was bittersweet,” Moore told UIC Athletic Communications afterward. “Sometimes you don’t like playing against your friends, and your mentors. That’s what Coach Molinari is to me. He was the guy that gave me my first opportunity in coaching.

“I love him like a father, and it’s tough when you beat someone that you have so much respect for. ‘Mo’ is going to get that thing going at Western. He’s got a great group; this was a very good team that we beat tonight. They’re going to do some damage in the Summit League this season.”

– Western Illinois Media Services contributed to this report.

 

 

 

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Momentous month