MACOMB, Ill. - The Western Illinois men's basketball team defeated the South Dakota Coyotes, 61-59, in dramatic fashion Saturday evening (March 2), earning a share of The Summit League's regular season title for the first time in 30 years. The Fighting Leathernecks picked up their 21st win this year, the most ever in the program's NCAA Division I era.
"What a great night for Western Illinois University and our basketball program," said head coach Jim Molinari. "It's always been hard - for five years, there have been ups and downs. The way it'll culminate, with a regular season championship today, it's just terrific how it worked out."
The Leathernecks (21-7, 13-3) won the conference's first-ever regular season title in 1982-83, making this year's crown the first of its kind during the conference's tournament era.
"The energy the crowd gave us was terrific," continued coach Molinari. "That makes this night as special as anything. To have 5,000 people, that's really what you have to do to have a good college basketball program and win a tough game - you have to have them, because it gives you energy and intimidates the other team."
The evening was also special in that the team's four seniors Ceola Clark III, Terell Parks, Jack Houpt and Don McAvoy III were honored prior, and the men's team had its highest attendance since the 1986-87 season as 5,089 packed Western Hall
Clark led the way with a career-high tying 27 points, including six three-pointers. He connected on six straight in the second half which tied the program's consecutive three-pointers record. He also grabbed five rebounds, dished out four assists, and had three steals.
Houpt was the only other Leatherneck to tally double figures in the win, scoring 15 points to go along with his four rebounds, three blocks and an assist.
Junior Adam Link added seven points and three rebounds, sophomore Remy Roberts-Burnett had five points and four rebounds, and Michael Ochereobia led the team with six boards while scoring four points.
South Dakota (10-19, 5-11) was led by Trevor Gruis and Juevol Myles who each had 19 points.
Western shot 43.1 percent from the field compared to USD's 43.8%. Both team's shot 42.9% from beyond the arc, while South Dakota went 91.7% from the free throw line compared to WIU's 57.1%. The Leathernecks bettered South Dakota in every other category except rebounds.
Saturday's slow start looked a lot like Thursday's slow start versus Kansas City as South Dakota jumped out to an 11-0 lead and Western didn't score until 6:30 into the contest. USD held its double-digit lead until midway through the first before the Leathernecks began to chip away.
Western battled for the remainder of the period and eventually tied things up at the break, 23-23, on a McAvoy layup.
USD scored the first five points of the second and jumped back out to a five point lead. Clark, however, then drilled back-to-back-to-back three-pointers and Western had its first lead of the game, 32-28, with just over 16 minutes to play in regulation.
That lead would be tested late in the game, but never once did South Dakota tie the game. USD's Juevol Myles missed a 17-foot jumper with six seconds left and a desperation three-quarter court heave went wide, prompting an on-court celebration of the program's Summit League title.
Western will be the second seed in next weekend's Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and face the seventh-seeded South Dakota Coyotes at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday (March 9).