Western Courier

Leathernecks lose momentum heading towards tournament

Taylor Higginbotham makes a move against a Fort Wayne player.

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Taylor Higginbotham makes a move against a Fort Wayne player.

Titus Perez, Courier Staff

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Western Illinois Leathernecks (12-17, 8-8 Summit) will enter the Summit League tournament on a four game losing streak, as they dropped their last two games of the regular season. The losses over the weekend to South Dakota State University Jackrabbits (23-6, 15-1 Summit), and the University of Denver Pioneers (17-12, 10-6 Summit) were crucial to the Leathernecks Summit League tournament seeding. Had they won both games, they could have entered the tournament as the third seed, winning one of the two would have given the Necks the fourth seed. Losing both games, the Leathernecks have to settle for the fifth seed and a tougher tournament route.

The first of the two losses came Thursday night against Denver on the road. In this high scoring affair, the Necks just couldn’t hold a candle to Denver who won, 94-85. Western was up by two points entering the fourth quarter but the Pioneers were resilient, using a strong fourth quarter to put the Necks away. Denver was able to do this with their defense, forcing the Purple and Gold to shoot three of 18 in the quarter for only 16 percent. Western’s terrible shooting came at the wrong time because Denver was hot, hitting 57 percent of their shots in the fourth, outscoring Western, 25-14. Western was solid in every other facet of the game exceptt field goal percentage and bench play, shooting only 36 percent compared to the Pioneers 46 percent. Their bench got outplayed severely, allowing the Pioneers bench a score of 33 points, while their reserves pitched in just three points. Senior Taylor Higginbotham led the way by bringing in 23 points and eight rebounds while junior guard Annabel Graettinger played well too, scoring 24 points of her own. Western’s leading scorer on the season, junior guard Olivia Kaufmann had a tough day shooting, but still ended with 18 points and eight rebounds. Denver’s Courtney Smith had a double-double with 22 points and 13 rebounds, while Madison Nelson chipped in 24 points and nine rebounds.

In the final game of the regular season, the Leathernecks were blown out by the conference leading SDSU Jackrabbits, 100-62. The game was ugly from the start, as the Jackrabbits put on a show for the 3,065 fans in attendance.

They jumped on the Necks early, taking a 34-17 lead at the end of the first quarter. By halftime, Western was already trailing by 23, 54-31. SDSU dominated the half holding Western to 35 percent shooting, hitting on 52 percent of their shots. All but 12 of Western first half shots were from behind the three-point line; they connected on only six of those 22 attempts. The Purple and Gold came out swinging in the third quarter although they were still outscored, 27-25. SDSU wrapped up their regular season Summit League title with a convincing last quarter, holding the Necks to just six points. Every starter for SDSU ended in double figures, highlighted by Macy Miller’s 24 points. Tyler Irwin netted a double-double, scoring 17 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. As for Western Illinois, Kaufmann lead their four double-digit scorers with 17 points.

With the regular season now officially over, Western can turn their attention to the Summit League tournament. If they can somehow navigate their way to three wins and a tournament championship, they will find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in program history. When they won the Summit League tournament in 2017 they were the favorites, this time they will go in as the underdogs. Tournament play kicks off Saturday, in Sioux Falls, S.D. The fifth seed Leathernecks will take on the fourth seed Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles (17-12, 10-6 Summit). The Golden Eagles beat Western both times in the regular season, however, the two games were close and decided by only a few plays, so the Leathernecks should be confident going into the game.

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Leathernecks lose momentum heading towards tournament