By John Bohnenkamp
There is a balance to Western Illinois’ offense that opponents are finding hard to defend.
It was Colton Sandage’s turn to lead the Leathernecks in Wednesday’s 93-80 win over Ball State at Western Hall.
Sandage had a career-high 33 points. He made 11-of-16 shots, including 7-of-9 in 3-pointers.
Four of the Leathernecks’ starters scored in double figures — Trenton Massner had 18 points, Luka Barisic had 14 and Tamell Pearson had 13 — while Will Carius had nine points.
“If we can get that starting five going, plus more, we’re very hard to deal with,” Sandage said.
“I think what’s huge about it is it can be different guys for us,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “There’s Will the other night (Carius had 22 in Saturday’s win over Miami of Ohio), Colton tonight, we’ve seen Trenton have big games. That’s what we need — we need balance from guys. Now you can’t just load up on one guy.”
The Leathernecks (6-2) led almost the entire game, and it was Sandage who provided the early lift.
Sandage had 13 of Western Illinois’ first 17 points. And when he and Carius combined for 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions, the Leathernecks led 26-17.
“It’s always important for us to get off to a good start,” Sandage said. “With the team we have, anyone can get going at any given second. Tonight was my night.”
Ball State shot 49.1 percent from the field and outrebounded the Leathernecks 37-35. But Western Illinois’ offense was relentless, with 14 3-pointers among their 31 field goals.
“They’re a really good offensive team,” Sandage said. “That was a full 40-minute game of defending. We moved the ball well, hit the shots we needed to hit.”
A three-shot possession early in the second half defined what the Leathernecks were doing. Sandage came up with a steal, and Carius missed a 3-pointer at the offensive end. George Dixon came up with the rebound and passed the ball to Sandage, who missed a three. Carius got the rebound and kicked it out to Barisic, who delivered a 3-pointer to put Western Illinois up 62-47.
“The best part about it was Will throwing the ball back out,” Jeter said. “He had layups, but he was really in tune with making sure his teammates were picking him up. He wasn’t looking to put the ball in the basket, he was sharing the ball.”
“We’re tough,” Sandage said. “We’ve got a fight in us, for sure. Losing is something we don’t like to do. We fight every possession, and it’s showing.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Colton Sandage (left) and J.J. Flores look for instructions during Wednesday’s game.