MACOMB, Ill. – Heading into Saturday night, the Western Illinois men’s basketball team’s recent stretch of games had been far from ideal. After coming out on top in three of six contests played over winter break, the Leathernecks had since dropped seven straight games, losing four of these by 10 or fewer points. While luck hasn’t been on their side, they looked to rebound against a stout North Dakota team at Western Hall.
While North Dakota joined Western coming into this one with a record below .500 (11-14), they held their own in conference play, notching a 6-6 record in The Summit League with notable victories this season over Nebraska, Oral Roberts and Purdue Fort Wayne. While they hadn’t been scorching hot, the Fighting Hawks won three of the last five games, including a win over Western at home on Jan. 25.
In their first go-around, North Dakota narrowly edged the Purple and Gold by a score of 83-77. The one-two scoring punch of senior guard Marlon Stewart and sophomore big man Filip Rebraca proved to be the difference in this one, with both players going over the 20-point mark. Western kept pace with them, having five players finish in double figures (junior guard Kobe Webster led the Leathernecks in scoring with 17 points), but it wouldn’t be enough in the end.
Fans who came out to see a close, down-to-the-wire game for round No. 2 between these two evenly-matched opponents did not leave Western Hall disappointed. Looking for vengeance this time around, the Purple and Gold came out firing, but North Dakota was there to answer. The Fighting Hawks went into halftime with a seven-point lead, but couldn’t pull away in a first half that included three ties and four lead changes. While North Dakota managed to hold onto their lead throughout the second half, Western just wouldn’t go away. They tied things up and had a chance to win the game, holding onto the final possession in regulation, but sophomore forward Ben Pyle couldn’t get his buzzer beating shot to fall from deep in the paint.
In overtime, Webster had an opportunity to cap off a memorable night (20 points), sinking a three-pointer that would have given Western the lead with just under 30 seconds to play. However, a controversial call by the official determined Webster had traveled prior to the shot attempt, so the basket was no good. What looked like a night of celebration quickly turned into a night of could-have-been for the Leathernecks, ultimately losing this one 86-83.
Although the Leathernecks didn’t get the outcome they wanted after battling hard for five quarters, head coach Billy Wright acknowledged the positives his team could take away from this heartbreaking loss. In an interview with WIU Athletics, Wright exclaimed how proud he was of his guys battling to the very end.
“We put ourselves in a position [to win], and never felt like it’s over until it’s over. I’m proud of our guys for fighting, clawing and making the necessary adjustments,” said Wright. “It could’ve gotten out of hand early, but our guys made consecutive stops. The ball movement was great. We shot almost 50 percent in the second half, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the resiliency.”
The Purple and Gold have exactly one week to forget about this one and turn their focus to Omaha. Western will have the home court advantage for their second of two straight home games, looking to reverse their recent trend of luck (or lack thereof). This appears to be another very winnable game for the Leathernecks, as the Mavericks will come into this match at just below .500 (12-14). Tip-off for this game is slated for Saturday at 2 p.m.