By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
MACOMB, Ill. — The best way to start the conference season is to beat the program that has given you — and everyone else in the conference, it seemed — fits over the last few years.
Western Illinois’ 79-60 win over North Dakota State in Monday’s Summit League men’s basketball opener at Western Hall was a perfect way for the Leathernecks to open conference play.
The Leathernecks (8-4 overall) extended their winning streak to six with a convincing finish to a game that they controlled for 33 of the 40 minutes.
Western Illinois outscored the Bison (3-10) 35-17 over the final 12:14 of the game, defeating a program that had won 18 of the last 20 matchups between the two teams.
“I think this was big because I know, historically, they’ve been one of the better teams in the league,” said guard Trenton Massner, who led the Leathernecks with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
“They’ve been the class of the league for, I want to say, five-plus years,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “They’re going to play their style.
“What I liked was … (the final score) says 19, but it was close. It was good to have it close, and then we stuck to our style and were able to put our foot down and finish. That’s what I’m really proud of.”
“Just to continue to take the punches, and do what we had to do offensively and get the stops down the stretch was big for us,” said guard Alec Rosner, who had 19 points.
Rosner’s 3-pointer with 11:19 to play put the Leathernecks up 47-43, starting an 11-4 run that put some distance between them and the Bison. Massner then scored Western Illinois’ next 10 points, and North Dakota State had no offensive answer.
Massner, in his second season with the Leathernecks, knew how important it was to get conference play off to a strong start.
“I feel like, as a returner, I felt the responsibility of setting the tone earlier and show my teammates how much this means to me and to everybody,” Massner said. “We’re trying to do something special here that’s never been done, and that’s why I came back.”
Grant Nelson led North Dakota State with 35 points and 16 rebounds, but the Bison didn’t give him much help. Boden Skunberg had 10 points, but no other player scored in double figures for the Bison. North Dakota State was also just 1-of-17 in 3-pointers.
“Nelson was in a zone — he was just making shots,” Jeter said. “Our only strategy was hoping he couldn’t make 75, 80 points of them.”
Jeter threw big bodies at Nelson all game. Jesiah West got the early duty, then Vuk Stevanic, then Elijah Farr. Nelson drew nine fouls, but only made 7-of-11 free throws.
West had 14 points and seven rebounds. Stevanic had seven points. Farr had six points in 15 minutes, hitting a critical 3-pointer to end that crucial 11-4 second-half run.
Jeter was concerned about starting league play at home during holiday break when the students weren’t on campus.
“When you have home games (to start the conference), it’s a blessing and a curse,” Jeter said. “You know you’re getting these home games when no one is around. I really called on our bench — we had to create our own energy. I thought they were loud. And that’s a team. That’s a team. We need everybody.”
The Leathernecks play host to North Dakota on Wednesday in a game moved up to a noon tipoff because of a winter storm approaching the Midwest.
“We have to get rest,” Jeter said. “Here’s the advantage of being home — get some rest, eat early, get to bed, get up tomorrow, get some things in and not have to worry about that day of travel.”
Photo: WIU’s Vuk Stevanic (right) tries to defend North Dakota State’s Andrew Morgan in Monday’s game. (Photo courtesy of WIU Athletic Communications)