Men’s basketball crumbles but still makes tournament

Zion+Young+dribbles+down+court+inside+Western+Hall.

Josh Purnell/ Courier Staff

Zion Young dribbles down court inside Western Hall.

Michael Harms , Courier Staff

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Western Illinois University went 0-2 this week, but advanced into post season play. They lost to Denver University 74-46, and South Dakota State University 86-66, to post a final regular season record of 9-20 (4-12 in conference).

Their first matchup was the Leathernecks second time playing the Pioneers. Western won 78-60, but this time Denver was ready. They recorded 12 steals forcing 18 turnovers and scoring a point per each turnover. That and the fact that three of Western’s starters, Kobe Webster, C.J. Duff and Ben Pyle went a combined 2-23 from the field.

The only highlight from the night was freshman Zion Young. He scored a career high of 21 points while bringing down four rebounds. On the other bench, the highlight was David Nzekwesi who scored a team high of 20 points and tallied seven rebounds.

This game was important because Western could have locked up a tournament spot with a win. Denver was last in the Summit League before entering this matchup, but with a win they held a chance at making the tournament. They had to beat No. 2 seeded Omaha and a Western Illinois loss to do so.

They failed to win their Saturday matchup, 86-76. With University of North Dakota making its season premiere in the Summit League, this was the first year a team will be left out of the tournament.

Western went to battle the top seeded South Dakota State University for an entrance into post-season play. They were faced up against two-time winning Summit League defensive player Mike Daum, and a team that took home another regular season title. This is their fifth title and second year in a row under head coach T.J. Otzelerger.

The Leathernecks were outmatched, allowing Skyler Flatten and Daum to score a combined 51 points in their dominant win.

“When you play a team like South Dakota State on their floor, you have to be near flawless,” head coach Billy Wright said to WIU Athletics Communications after the game.

The Leathernecks were far from flawless, giving up 12 turnovers and looking flat on the defensive side of the ball for most of the game. They fought until the end, but just did not have enough energy to get the job done.

Thankfully, Western still advances as the last seed into the tournament once again. For the third straight season, Western will be the ultimate underdog. Since South Dakota State is the regular season champion, this will be Western’s first test in the tournament.

It’s a back-to-back matchup of the Jackrabbits versus the Leathernecks for the second straight year. Last time, Western brought a thriller to the SDSU fans in Sioux Falls, but ultimately failed losing, 66-60. Webster had a chance to tie the game late, but hit iron instead of a score.

Western will have to learn from their mistakes, refuel the engines and bring their best game to the champs. A win here means everything. All other misses, losses and failures amount to nothing if Western can win here. Western’s next game will be this Saturday. Tip-off begins at 6 p.m.