By John Bohnenkamp
Western Illinois was able to establish a tone in the two regular-season matchups with Oral Roberts this season.
It was the Golden Eagles who took control early in Sunday’s Summit League tournament quarterfinals, forcing the Leathernecks to play a catch-up game they couldn’t win.
Oral Roberts, the defending tournament champion and the third seed in this year’s tournament, fought off two second-half runs by the sixth-seeded Leathernecks in the 80-68 victory.
Western Illinois (16-15) split with Oral Roberts (19-11) this season, getting off to double-digit leads in both games.
This time, the Golden Eagles led by as much as 14 points in the first half before taking a 43-31 halftime lead.
“We never really had a chance to rattle them,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “They were always poised, and we were the ones trying to play catch-up. The games we played against them early, we kind of had them on the ropes, on their heels, a little bit.”
“I think we were able to lock in defensively,” said Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas, who led the Golden Eagles with 22 points. “We wanted to establish ourselves early, especially on the defensive end. You can control that every game — the defensive end, the energy.”
Oral Roberts forward Elijah Lufile had six offensive rebounds in the first half, leading to eight second-chance points. Lufile had 18 points in the game, with 14 coming in the first half on 7-of-10 shooting.
“Eli is a force, physically,” Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills said. “What Eli was able to do is finish. Retrieving is one thing, finishing is another. Eli was able to retrieve, and finish.”
“It comes down to toughness and discipline, and we learned that tonight early,” Jeter said. “You can’t give up the second-chance points early that put us in the position to be playing from behind.”
Tamell Pearson kept Western Illinois in the game, scoring all 14 of his points in the first half.
“He had a little swagger to him, which was good to see,” Jeter said. “It kind of gave us a chance.”
And the Leathernecks would rally. They had a 15-5 run to open the second half, and were within 63-60 with 6:34 to play before the Golden Eagles pulled away.
“It just started with stops,” said Western Illinois guard Trenton Massner. “That’s what Coach is always preaching — get stops. When we got those, it helped our offensive rhythm. We started to make some threes in the second half, which got us back in it.”
The deficit the Leathernecks had faced was too much.
“I think it’s never good to get down this big against a team of this caliber, just because you expend so much energy coming back in the game it’s really hard,” Massner said. “They’re not going to give it up easily.”
The Leathernecks were outrebounded 42-32 for the game, but held Oral Roberts to just four second-chance points in the second half.
“They seemed to come out even,” said Jeter, whose team had 10 second-chance points. “But boy, they were very big for them.”
Massner led the Leathernecks with 28 points. Colton Sandage added 11.
Lufile had 18 for Oral Roberts. Issac McBride and Deshang Weaver had 11.
Western Illinois had its first winning season since 2013. Jeter said the Leathernecks had reached “little milestones” in his second season as coach, but there was more work to do.
“This group has really done a lot, accomplished a lot. I’m very proud of them,” he said. “We’ve learned some lessons, and we’ll be better for it.”
Photo: Western Illinois guard Trenton Massner is guarded by Oral Roberts’ Francis Lacis in the first half of Sunday’s Summit League tournament quarterfinal. (Richard Carlson/Inertia)