By John Bohnenkamp
The looks were good, but the shots didn’t fall.
And for a team struggling to find an identity, that can be a killer.
Western Illinois stumbled offensively for most of Saturday’s game against North Dakota State, and it showed in a 68-50 loss to open Summit League play.
The Leathernecks (2-6 overall, 0-1 Summit League) shot just 29.6 percent from the field for the game, 24.1 percent in the first half. They were down 39-23 at halftime, and even though they got to within nine points in the second half, they couldn’t find enough offense to overcome the Bison (3-6, 1-0).
“They do a good job of wearing you down,” Western Illinois associate head coach Chad Boudreau said. “We got out of rhythm, out of sorts.”
It wasn’t that the Leathernecks weren’t getting good shots — most came inside. Getting them to fall was something completely different.
When Rob Jeter took over as Western Illinois’ head coach in late March, he rebuilt the roster — 14 of the Leathernecks are new to the program. It has shown in the up-and-down play during games — Western Illinois was only outscored 29-27 in the second half.
“I just feel like, right now, we’re struggling with our identity,” Boudreau said. “That falls on us as coaches. We’re working on that, trying to get it sorted out.
Boudreau pointed out the experience of the Bison roster — North Dakota State starts a senior, two juniors and two sophomores.
“They’ve been through the battles before,” Boudreau said. “We’re still searching for an identity.”
The Leathernecks switched to a zone defense in the second half, and got to within 48-39 with 10:27 to play before the Bison went on a 13-4 run.
“We’re within nine and then, boom, it’s back to 16,” Boudreau said. “It’s a ton of points to be behind against a team like North Dakota State.
“It’s a tough matchup when you get behind a tough, grind-it-out North Dakota State team. They’re going to squeeze you.”
Rod Johnson led the Leathernecks with 16 points, the only Western Illinois player in double figures.
Rocky Kreuser led North Dakota State with 17 points. Maleeck Harden-Hayes had 16.
The two teams play again Sunday under the Summit League’s format of doubleheader weekends during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It would have been nice to get a win, get some rhythm, get some positivity going in the win-loss column,” Boudreau said. “That didn’t happen tonight. So we’ll come back tomorrow and do it again.”