By John Bohnenkamp
It wasn’t destiny that derailed Western Illinois in the Summit League tournament semifinals, it was the shots that wouldn’t fall.
The Leathernecks’ 69-55 loss to Omaha on Monday afternoon at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., came on a day when Western Illinois’ offense was hurried and frustrated by the Mavs.
The Leathernecks (8-16) shot 40.4 percent for the game, but that average was buoyed by a 72.7-percent effort in the fourth quarter.
“I can’t question their effort and their energy,” Western Illinois coach JD Gravina said. “I think coaches will tell you, the thing you can control the least is making shots. We just struggled the whole game offensively.”
Western Illinois trailed 30-27 at halftime, then was outscored 23-10 in the third quarter. The Leathernecks made just 4-of-16 shots, going 0-of-5 in 3-pointers.
“We came out the second half and got really good looks, and didn’t make any of them,” Gravina said. “I really felt like for the last 16 minutes of the game, we’re playing catch-up, and being desperate. And then we’re sending them to the free-throw line, flying around on defense. I think that was a tough position to be in.”
Omaha, the No. 8 seed, kept the Leathernecks at the tempo it wanted throughout the game.
“I kind of just feel like it’s unlucky we picked a bad day to have a bad shooting game,” Gravina said. “But that’s conference tournament, that’s postseason basketball.”
“I feel like we were working to get some good looks,” said forward Evan Zars, who had 16 points. “Once you get down, it’s hard not to get sped up, it’s hard not to force shots. It’s hard not to continue to push really hard, and not keep the balance we try to play with. You never know — if we do the exact same thing and those shots fall, it’s an entirely different game.”
“They went out there and executed their game plan,” said guard Grace Gilmore, who also scored 16 points. “They wanted to slow the game down, and they did that really well on offense. They ran the shot clock down on every possession. It felt like we really tried to rush too much on offense to make up for the time we lost on defense.”
The Mavs went 5-12 in the regular season, but knocked off top seed and 25th-ranked South Dakota State in Saturday’s quarterfinal, and are now one win from an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“I think so. I think so for sure,” Omaha’s Claire Killian said when she was asked if she believes in destiny. “The adversity this team has gone through, not only this year but the past couple of years, I don’t want to say we deserve it, but we’ve worked so hard to get to this point. We are the only ones who thought we could do it.
“I don’t know if I believe destiny is the right word. We put the work in to get here.”
That work included shutting down the Leathernecks.
“They just make you where if you have some bad minutes, you’re playing catch-up,” Gravina said. “And that’s a tough way to play basketball — that desperate, catch-up feeling. And I felt we had that the whole game.”
Photo: Evan Zars had 16 points in Western Illinois’ loss to Omaha on Monday. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)