By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
MACOMB, Ill. — JJ Kalakon had a big smile when he banked in a second-half 3-pointer.
While Kalakon’s Western Illinois University teammates celebrated from the bench, Trenton Massner gave Kalakon a playful shove and started laughing.
It was a fun day for the Leathernecks in a 90-72 win over Texas Rio Grande Valley at Western Hall on Saturday afternoon.
It was, according to the Leathernecks, their most impressive victory of the season.
“As a whole, 40 minutes, yes, it was a complete game,” forward Jesiah West said. “Just being efficient on both ends of the floor, getting it done on both ends of the floor.”
“In my opinion, in my personal opinion, this was our best game so far,” center Vuk Stevanic said.
Oh, there was some revenge involved — Western Illinois lost at UTRGV 78-77 on November 21, falling on a last-second layup by Ahren Freeman. It was the third defeat in a four-game losing streak that had the Leathernecks doing some soul-searching, particularly after last Saturday’s 88-64 home loss to Youngstown State.
But this win, coupled with Wednesday’s 86-78 home win over Southern Indiana, has the Leathernecks feeling good again.
“I think more important, it was just seeing guys smiling and having fun again,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “We had a stretch there, including against UTRGV, where we weren’t having fun. And so that’s what I think I’m more … I’m happy to see that. We want to enjoy this process. It’s never going to be easy. But we can still have some fun and enjoy it. I think tonight I saw some guys having fun, and that’s a good thing.
“These last two games, we’ve come together. We were challenged. That Youngstown State game rocked us. We got blown out. We didn’t play to our standards. We had games like that last year, and we couldn’t seem to get it back. At least I saw a better response this year. That’s a positive.”
“It’s just building as a team,” West said. “Just getting close with the guys, just building as a team. Just being ourselves.”
Massner led the Leathernecks with a season-high 25 points, one of four starters in double figures. West had 18 points, Stevanic had 15 and Alec Rosner had 11.
The Leathernecks (4-4) led the entire game, keeping a double-digit lead throughout the second half.
“From the beginning, we felt like we had control of the game,” Stevanic said. “It felt sometimes when it felt like we were going to separate, they would get within nine, 10 points. But we felt like we were still in charge of the game.”
The Leathernecks scored 25 points off turnovers, while the Vaqueros (5-4) had just four.
“That’s a big number,” Jeter said.
“We keep talking about staying disciplined, finishing halves, finishing possessions, not letting them get rebounds, staying true to our identity,” Stevanic said. “So, from that perspective, it’s huge that we won in this fashion.”
Western Illinois shot 51.6 percent for the game.
“Just finishing,” West said when asked what was the key to the win. “That was a big thing the last couple of games. Just finishing games, getting it done.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Jesiah West (left) laughs with Quinlan Bennett in the closing minutes of Saturday’s win. (WIU Athletic Communications)