By John Bohnenkamp
J.J. Flores had a message as he was coming out of the game.
“Finish this game,” the Western Illinois guard emphasized to his teammates. “Finish this game.”
And so they did.
The 79-67 win over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday at Western Hall was another sign of the Leathernecks’ growth in the first month of the season. They moved to 5-2 by pulling away late against a Mid-American Conference team that came into the game undefeated, including a season-opening win over Georgia Tech.
An 11-0 run gave the Leathernecks a first-half lead, then the second half was about fighting off any surges by the RedHawks.
Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter knew the resumé of his opponent, and knew the RedHawks wouldn’t go away.
“I wanted to make sure we could respond,” Jeter said. “And we did that.”
“That’s something we’ve struggled with the last couple of games — we’ve let teams hang around,” said sixth-year forward Will Carius, who led the Leathernecks with 22 points. “We can’t break that five-point, 10-point lead. Today we did a good job of staying down, staying disciplined.”
The Leathernecks have been in close games all season. They won by one point at Nebraska and two points at Northern Kentucky, and had four-point road losses to DePaul and Eastern Michigan.
“It’s nice to have one where we win by more than one point,” Carius said, laughin. “I mean, it shows a lot of toughness and discipline.”
Carius logged almost 36 minutes despite missing Wednesday’s game at Eastern Michigan with an injury. He made just 1-of-6 shots in the first half, but went 5-of-8 from the field in the second half, including back-to-back 3-pointers that gave Western Illinois a 70-57 lead with 5 ½ minutes to play.
“He’s just a tough player,” Jeter said. “He’s tough, man. He’s not feeling great — obviously he’s not a hundred percent. But he gutted it out.
“There’s always that concern that creeps through. I wanted to make sure defensively he’s solid. He’s our best defender, and he’s also our best offensive player. I wanted to make sure he didn’t get complacent on the defensive end. Early in the first half, he made a few uncharacteristic errors. I think he was just unsure. But once the game got going, you could see him flip the switch. He was good.”
“I was getting similar looks in the first half. It was just a matter of knocking them down,” Carius said. “As a team, we really got hot, which was cool to see.
“I give credit to the trust my teammates and coaches have in me. They were telling me to keep shooting, they’re good looks, they’re going to go down. And the percentages always play out.”
Western Illinois got 17 points from Trenton Massner and 13 each from Colton Sandage and Luka Barisic. But they also got six points and seven rebounds off the bench from George Dixon.
The Leathernecks won just seven games last season. This team has a different feel.
And they’ve learned to finish.
“I think this game is proof of that,” Carius said. “We’re finally coming into our own. We’re getting wins, and we’re still figuring things out.”