Men’s hoops prepare for final stretch against Coyotes

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Jake Thompson

Head basketball coach Billy Wright and the Leathernecks will finish the regular season at home this week.

Mat McClanahan

Western Illinois men’s basketball looks to secure an outright spot in the Summit League tournament when they take on South Dakota this Thursday.

Eight out of the nine teams in the conference make the tournament to play for a spot in the NCAA March Madness tournament in just a couple weeks. Western did not qualify for the Summit League tournament last season, even after beating Big 10 powerhouse Wisconsin, they could not muster up enough victories to qualify.

In the Leathernecks’ last meeting with the second-place Coyotes, Western fell in a close game, 55-62. With that being said, it was not a good night for the Leathernecks’ offense. The leading scorer on the season, Garrett Covington only came away with 13 points on a night that the team needed him to be at his best. Head coach Billy Wright understood that the Leathernecks were not at their best against one of the top teams in the conference.

“We had guys playing out of position but, at the end of the day, we’ve been in this position before. It’s not ideal,” said Wright. “The turnovers we made were uncharacteristic, just simple plays that you can’t make whether you have a true point guard or not. Those are basketball plays that our guards have to be better at in making those decisions. You look at that, 18 turnovers, missing free throws down the stretch, we didn’t shoot well and still had a chance though. Our kids fought and I’m proud of that.”

The numbers never lie; Western shot just 35.7 percent from the field, 30 percent from behind the arc, and just 52.9 percent from the free throw line. The Coyotes beat them in two of the three categories: overall shooting and free throw percentage.

However, the Leatherneck defense is what kept the game close. Tallying six team steals and blocks helped Western keep the game close throughout the night.

“Our defense kept us in it,” Wright said. “I thought we did a really good job defensively. That’s what kept us in the ballgame, quite honestly.”

To win Thursday night, Western cannot come out flat on offense or defense. In Western’s last game against conference leader North Dakota State, the purple and gold shot 45 percent from the field, 45 percent from 3-point land and 77 percent from the charity stripe. That is the kind of offensive aggression that will lead the Leathernecks to a victory. If Western can figure out how to put together a good game on both sides of the ball, they have the weapons to beat anyone in the conference. It will not be an easy task, but if they can get a win Thursday, the team will be able to focus on the tournament and how they will shock the Summit League in early March.

The Leathernecks have their last two games at home, both this week. The last game the regular season will be played at 7 p.m. Saturday, when the Leathernecks look to take down Fort Wayne on Senior night.

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