By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
MACOMB, Ill. — It’s an eight-day stretch that can determine the direction of the rest of Western Illinois’ men’s basketball season.
The Leathernecks got off to a good start on Saturday.
Saturday’s 60-56 win over St. Thomas was the first game of a four-game home stretch for the Leathernecks, who have a chance to get to the front of the traffic jam in the middle of the Summit League standings.
Western Illinois (11-8 overall, 4-4 Summit League) moved into a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference standings. If the Leathernecks can defeat North Dakota in Monday’s game, they’ll move into a third-place tie with North Dakota State at the halfway point of the league schedule. And with Thursday’s game against South Dakota and next Saturday’s game against South Dakota State looming, the Leathernecks know the importance of what’s ahead, and know the importance of what they did against the Tommies (13-9, 4-5).
“This win was very big,” said forward Jesiah West, who got his first double-double of the season with 10 points and 13 rebounds. “We’re at .500 now in the league.”
“We talked in the locker room about just how big this week is,” said guard Quinlan Bennett, who had 10 points. “It’s important we get our rest when we can, because this is a big week.”
All five Western Illinois starters scored in double figures — guard Trenton Massner had 18 points, Alec Rosner had 12 points, and Vuk Stevanic had 10 — but it was the Leathernecks’ defense that made the difference in the game. Western Illinois, which trailed by as much as nine points and was down 28-23 at halftime, held the Tommies to just 35.5 percent shooting in the second half. St. Thomas was just 2-of-16 in 3-pointers.
“We were big on keeping guys in front of us,” West said. “That was an emphasis in practice this week.”
“No threes,” Bennett said. “That was literally our focus.”
Western Illinois held St. Thomas guard Riley Miller scoreless. Miller came into the week leading the Summit League with 67 3-pointers, but he was 0-for-5 from the field, 0-of-4 in 3-pointers.
“To hold Miller to zero, I would have said that’s impossible,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “But I liked the defensive effort as a group.”
West anchored the back end of the Leathernecks’ defense with three blocked shots, including one in the second half when he swallowed the dunk attempt of St. Thomas’ Ahjany Lee.
“I just turned it up,” said West, in his first season with the Leathernecks. “First half, I was lackadaisical. I wasn’t doing as much as I should. Second half, I saw how I could change the game in so many ways, just doing what I know I can do to the best of my ability.”
“Last year, I can still see some of those layups we gave up,” Jeter said. “This year, he’s giving us a protector. He can erase a mistake. And that’s what he’s doing, he’s erasing a mistake at the rim. Any good basketball team has that.”
“Those blocks were crazy,” Bennett said. “We needed them all. It hypes us up. And knowing he’s back there, it really helps our defense.”
The biggest stretch of the season had the best start. And West knew why.
“Just being us,” he said. “Leathernecks. That’s it.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ K.J. Lee defends the inbounds pass from St. Thomas’ Andrew Rohde in the first half.