By John Bohnenkamp
There was no time to stew about it, no time to think about what went wrong.
Western Illinois’ men’s basketball team opened Summit League play on Saturday with a 68-50 loss to North Dakota State.
Twenty-two hours after the end of that game, the Leathernecks and Bison were playing again. North Dakota State won, 78-67, but Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter thought his team had taken a step forward.
That’s why it was important, Jeter said, that the Leathernecks got back on the court right away.
In the usual conference format, the Leathernecks wouldn’t have played again until Wednesday or Thursday, against a different opponent.
But this year the Summit League, as well as some other conference, are playing back-to-back games on the same weekend to lessen travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of the usual home-and-home schedule, two teams play on the same court on back-to-back days.
“If we didn’t play today, it would have been a long week after that first game,” said Jeter, in his first season of coaching the Leathernecks. “We got beat by 18, I thought we were lethargic. I thought we were not tough, not physical enough. So we would have had three or four days, and then played another opponent. Now you come back the next day.
“In a lot of ways, it tests your toughness, it tests your discipline. OK, you just saw it, it just happened. Now can it be better? I think that’s what we wanted to see. I thought we were better tonight. That’s a sign of growth, in the team and in the program.”
The new format is going to test coaches and players.
“I think these back-to-backs are going to be really interesting, especially when you’re playing against a good team,” said Western Illinois women’s coach JD Gravina, whose team split the two-game series with North Dakota State, winning 77-65 on Saturday before losing 93-60 on Sunday.
Approaching each series, Gravina said, is going to be different, but there can’t be much overthinking when it comes to putting together a game plan.
“You can’t look at everything and begin second-guessing everything,” he said.
North Dakota State used different starting lineups both days. The Leathernecks had four players in the starting lineup for both games — Evan Zars, Grace Gilmore, Danni Nichols and Elizabeth Lutz. All four played more than 30 minutes in Saturday’s game.
“I definitely think they were fresher,” Gravina said after Sunday’s loss. “When they’re throwing nine, 10 kids out there and they’re playing well, that’s tougher.”
The Leathernecks couldn’t sustain the momentum that they had from winning on Saturday.
“I think we played really well yesterday, one of our best games,” Gilmore said. “And then to come out today and reproduce that was going to be kind of difficult, and we knew that it was going be a struggle doing that. It’s something we have to figure out, because we’re going to be doing it the rest of the season.”
The Missouri Valley Conference is in its second week of the season with its two-game format.
Drake men’s coach Darian DeVries, whose team gets a chance at a second sweep in Monday’s home game against Southern Illinois, said the biggest adjustment comes mentally, hitting the “reset button” to get ready for the next game.
“You’ve got to do it very quickly, just to get your mind right, let alone just your body, taking care of it tonight,” DeVries said after Sunday’s 73-55 win. “Being able to show up tomorrow night at 6 o’clock, and having it in your mind it’s 0-0 again, and starting over, it is challenging, with it being the same team and stuff.
“This is really about taking what you’re doing, and really cleaning it up from this game heading into tomorrow. I think that’s the most unique challenge of these back-to-backs. It’s the mental part of it.”
“Your body, mentally, the whole game plan — it’s a full-week process to be ready for these two games,” said Drake guard D.J. Wilkins.
“It could be tiring on a body,” said forward ShanQuan Hemphill. “But we have to come through with that mindset that we’re not tired.”
It’s how teams bounce back, win or lose, that makes a difference. That second game means a sweep or a split, or the momentum killer of getting swept.
“That second day is the whole key to this conference season,” Hemphill said.
“You have to be ready to take a team’s best shot the second night,” Wilkins said.
“The biggest thing is recovering quickly — going home and eating a ton of carbs, and getting to bed early,” Gilmore said. “It’s just a mental toughness thing at this point — coming back the second day and being ready to fight again.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Tamell Pearson drives to the basket in Saturday’s game against North Dakota State. (Sarah Ritter/Western Illinois University)