By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
There was nothing between St. Thomas forward Ahjany Lee and the basket.
Lee had gotten behind Western Illinois’ defense on a fast break and once he got the pass from teammate Andrew Rohde, it looked like a sure dunk.
Except Western Illinois forward Jesiah West came racing through the lane, leaping at the same time as Lee to grab the ball away and start a fast break.
What looked to be a chance for the Tommies to go up by four points early in the second half of Saturday’s game instead turned into one of the key moments in Western Illinois’ comeback in the 64-60 win.
It’s a play that West has made plenty of times this season. The 6-foot-5 forward has 36 blocked shots, ranking second in the Summit League and 35th in NCAA Division I play.
It’s what Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter wanted when he was recruiting West. Jeter knew that the Leathernecks needed a frontcourt presence, and he found that in West.
“He can change the game,” Jeter said. “He can erase a mistake. That’s some of the things you’ve seen this year. If we get beat off the bounce, he erases it. He comes over and gets the block.”
West averages 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds, so he’s more than just a defender. But whatever the Leathernecks need, West said, he’ll do it.
“The role I take on, I take pride in it,” said West, who is from Elizabeth, N.J., “It’s doing the dirty work, doing the hard-nosed stuff. I don’t complain.
“Everybody can’t be a dog. It’s either in you or not. That’s one thing that I take pride in. I want to be that dog.”
Blocking shots is all about knowing when to leap, and West always seems to be in the right spot.
“That’s just something I’ve been gifted to do, and I do it very well at my size,” West said. “I’m good at timing blocks. I know how to slow down and time stuff.
“I’m a very big film guy. I watch guys, I get their tendencies down pat — how they go up with the ball, how they approach the game, and the speed they play at.”
“You have to have timing,” Jeter said. “You have to be fearless about it, because you have to fully commit. But the timing is the big thing. You can’t jump before the other guy jumps, because now you put yourself in fouling position.”
West came to Western Illinois after two seasons at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa. Jeter knew the Leathernecks needed an athletic forward who could keep up with the rest of the Summit League’s frontcourt players.
“The first key for him was understanding the physicality of the game,” Jeter said. “Use his athleticism, try to maximize that, that’s what we’ve been trying to do. Put him in situations where he can have success and maximize his athleticism, because I think he’s a versatile player who can guard outside and in.”
Playing in a historic junior-college program like SCC taught West about success, something Jeter said he saw in watching him.
“There’s a reason why a program is consistently good — they have a culture,” he said. “And that’s what these guys pick up. It’s not just about basketball. There’s that culture of discipline, respect — all of those things that translate when you come to our program. Now, we’re not worried about those outside things. He’s already ready to step into a culture of accountability, discipline, and family.”
“Being in juco, you really have to be tough-minded, being so far from home in an area that’s in the middle of nowhere,” West said. “You really have to be tough-minded. If you know what you want to do, you put your work in. At Southeastern, I really locked in and put in the work.
“(The culture was) very hard-nosed. We played the top of the top, the best of the best. It gets you ready for the next level. That’s a school that gets you ready for the next level. It’s everything you can imagine.”
West gave credit to SCC coach Lorenzo Watkins.
“He instills a lot of dog in you,” West said. “I’m naturally a dog, but he instills that dog in you. He focuses on the little stuff, the things a lot of teams don’t do, but that’s what he does. He makes young players into men.”
It’s all about doing the “dirty work,” West said.
“I’m an energy guy,” he said. “I’ll do anything to get us going, whether it’s a dunk or a block, or a charge. I really want to be the heart of the team. I’ll do what we need. I take pride in doing that.
“You either want to be a Chihuahua, or a Rottweiler. Little dog or big dog. I choose to be a big dog. That’s how I take it.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Jesiah West roars in for a dunk in a game earlier this season. (Photo courtesy of WIU Athletic Communications)