By John Bohnenkamp
MACOMB, Ill. — Rob Jeter knew that time had expired on Western Illinois’ regular season, even though there were three seconds left on the clock.
So the Leathernecks’ coach decided to get his seniors out of Saturday’s 83-77 loss to Denver, just for the appreciation of what they had accomplished in the last two seasons.
Four of the five — forwards Will Carius, Luka Barisic, Tamell Pearson and George Dixon — got to get that last ovation from the crowd at Western Hall. Only guard Jadrian Flores was left on the court — Jeter was out of timeouts and couldn’t get him out.
The future for the Leathernecks, Jeter said, was because of what these players had accomplished.
“They mean everything, right?” Jeter said. “I told the guys, we came here and made a commitment to change something that we knew was going to be difficult, take a chance. And these guys were all in on that. That’s what they really meant.
“I really wanted them to have a second for people to really appreciate them, give them a standing ovation. That’s the way to do it. We’re not going to score eight, seven points, whatever it was in the last three seconds. And even if it was possible, at this point, I wanted to make sure these guys felt appreciated. What they have chosen for us has been huge. Now we have a foundation to build on.”
“It was really cool, coming off with some guys I’ve spent every day with over the last two seasons,” Carius said. “I think it’s a great situation — we’re a great team with great people.”
Western Illinois finished 16-14 overall, the first season above .500 since the 2012-13 team shared the Summit League title. The Leathernecks were 7-11 in the Summit League, the most conference wins since that 2012-13 team. They’ll be the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament next weekend in Sioux Falls, S.D.
It was a big step in Jeter’s second season as head coach, but Saturday’s game showed that there is still work ahead.
The Leathernecks, who trailed for most of the game, rallied to lead 68-67 with five minutes to play, only to have that lead erased by a 9-0 run by the Pioneers (11-20, 7-11).
The five Western Illinois starters scored in double figures — Carius had 20, Trenton Massner had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Barisic had 12, Colton Sandage had 11 and Pearson had 10. The Leathernecks shot 50 percent from the field in the second half, and had a 40-30 rebounding edge.
But Denver was the one making the plays in the closing minutes.
“I think this season was filled with potential, and tonight was a great example,” Jeter said. “We had five guys in double figures. We played hard. We were down, we came back. But at the end of the game, you always fall back on your standards and your principles, and we’re not solid in those yet. And that’s where I’ve got to get them to.
“Our guys have really worked hard to put themselves into position. The thing tonight is, we still have work to do. You can see the potential, you can see the trajectory we’re headed. But that can all come crashing down in the last few seconds, the last few possessions, if we don’t continue to establish our principles, our standards, and be disciplined.”
“We just had a couple of mental lapses on a couple of plays, gave up a couple of rebounds, a couple of easy layups,” Carius said. “Just things we need to shore up. Things that if we take care of, we win.”
The shot that Jeter felt defined the season did not belong to any of his players. It belonged to Denver’s K.J. Hunt, whose 3-pointer with 20 seconds left gave the Pioneers an 81-75 lead.
Hunt’s shot bounced high off the rim, then touched the top of the backboard. Had it hit the support or the shot clock, it would have been a dead ball. Instead it rolled back onto the rim, circling it once and falling through the net.
Jeter could only laugh about it after the game.
“That kind of stuff, that’s our season right there,” he said.
Now the Leathernecks head to the conference tournament, with the NCAA tournament automatic bid going to the champion.
The steps they have made this season have been made on a road that still winds ahead.
“I love my guys,” Jeter said. “My guys, they work. But I’ve really got to get them to understand and get them solid on those things that would make the game easier for them down the stretch. And we have work to do yet, and that’s my job.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Colton Sandage (left) is guarded by Denver’s Taelyr Gatlin in the second half.