By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
MACOMB, Ill. — Their final home game was getting away from them, but Western Illinois guard Trenton Massner and Alec Rosner weren’t about to quit.
“Alec and I were talking and saying that no matter the outcome of the game, let’s just have fun,” Massner said. “It’s the last game in front of the home crowd, and that’s what we really play for — to have fun.”
And then Massner and Rosner nearly led Western Illinois to what would have been a stunning comeback.
The Leathernecks trailed Summit League leader Oral Roberts by 24 points early in the second half of Saturday’s game at Western Hall before their late rally fell short in an 82-73 defeat.
Western Illinois (15-11 overall, 8-7 Summit League) got to within 76-70 with 2:23 to play, but couldn’t get any closer to the Golden Eagles (23-4, 14-0), who clinched a share of the conference title with four games left in the regular season.
Rosner, with 29 points for the game, and Massner, with 20, ignited the late Western Illinois run.
Neither senior wanted to leave without giving the conference leader a fight.
“As long as you can get back in the game and make it competitive, it’s going to be fun,” Massner said. “That’s what we play for — it’s to compete. And the fact that we made this game competitive, that was fun.”
For so long in this game, the Leathernecks didn’t have an answer for Oral Roberts. Not that anyone has lately — the Golden Eagles are on a 10-game winning streak.
Oral Roberts led 51-30 at halftime, and when Isaac McBride scored inside with 18;52 to play, the Golden Eagles were up 55-31.
“We could have pulled it up and gone home,” Rosner said.
The Leathernecks didn’t. It was a slow whittle of the lead, but there was enough time that there was no need to be frantic.
“We said among our teammates, ‘Just take it one possession at a time,’” Rosner said. “There’s not one shot that’s going to get us back in the game. I think it was just breaking it down, just trying to win each possession and get stops.”
“I told my guys I’ll never question their toughness,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “There’s a high level of toughness that we have.”
Oral Roberts shot 61.8 percent in the first half, but just 37.9 percent in the second half.
“I think our second-half adjustment was pretty good,” Rosner said.
The Leathernecks also shot the ball better — 47.1 percent in the second half after 43.3 percent in the first.
“I think we were just able to string some shots together, and we really didn’t do that in the first half,” Massner said.
Massner and Rosner had the Leathernecks’ last 20 points in the final 8 ½ minutes.
Rosner’s last basket was a 3-pointer that got Western Illinois within 76-70. He then got a steal on the next possession, somehow taking the ball away from 7-foot-5 center Connor Vanover. Rosner raced toward the basket after gathering in the loose ball, but Vanover was able to scramble back to swat Rosner’s layup for his eighth blocked shot of the game.
The Leathernecks had one more critical possession, but Rosner and K.J. Lee missed 3-pointers down 78-70.
Oral Roberts’ size hurt the Leathernecks. The Golden Eagles had a 39-27 rebounding edge, including 11 offensive rebounds. Vanover had 14 rebounds.
The Leathernecks were outrebounded 37-20 in Thursday’s 76-64 loss to Kansas City.
“The two critical things are discipline and effort,” Jeter said. “And where does effort show up the most? Rebounding. And that’s been the last two games. That’s where it’s shown up.”
Max Abmas, who leads the Summit League in scoring, led the Golden Eagles with 29 points. Abmas, who suffered a cut under his chin in the first half, was 10-of-17 from the field, including a run of three consecutive 3-pointers in the first half.
“I think we had a couple of miscues on switches in the first half, and you can’t do that against a good player like that,” Rosner said.
The Leathernecks fell into a fourth-place tie with St. Thomas in the Summit League standings. The two teams play next Saturday in St. Paul, Minn., as Western Illinois closes the regular season with three road games.
“The good news is we’re in a good position, in the top four in the standings,” Jeter said. “The problem is we put ourselves in a very hard position because we let a few slip away that we needed to protect. So we’re going to need a special effort, mentally and physically, to get these done.”
Top photo: Western Illinois guard Trenton Massner (5) consoles teammate K.J. Lee as time runs out in Saturday’s loss to Oral Roberts. (John Lovretta/IowaCollegeHoops.com)