By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
The pain of tournament elimination grabbed Quinlan Bennett’s voice.
Western Illinois was knocked out of the Summit League tournament with a 67-60 loss to St. Thomas on Sunday night but Bennett, a redshirt junior guard, wished the Leathernecks were still going.
“This was a special group,” Bennett said. “I feel like we should have gone further than we did. I didn’t want to lose this game.”
The Leathernecks finished 16-14 overall, 9-9 in the Summit League, ending up in a tie for fourth place with St. Thomas. All of that, coach Rob Jeter said, is a sign of the progress the program has taken in his three seasons in Macomb.
“I will say that we’ve come a long way,” Jeter said. “There were times when we weren’t invited to this tournament. We came in as the fourth seed, and I think that’s worth mentioning for this group.”
It was the best conference record for the Leathernecks since the 2012-13 team shared the Summit League title. It’s the first season above .500 since then as well, and matched last season’s win total.
“I feel like we accomplished a lot,” senior guard Trenton Massner said. “We had a winning season, we were better than last year. Coach has seen progress every year he’s been here, and I was here for two of those years. We had a lot of fun. That’s all I wanted out of a senior year. Obviously I wanted a conference title — everybody wants that. But if that doesn’t happen, as long as you had fun, that’s all you can ask for.”
Jeter has been rebuilding since he was hired in April, 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every season has been a step forward, from seven wins in 2020-21, to a 16-win season last season, and then 16 wins with an above-.500 record this season.
“This group was put together during COVID, and then we had to add in some transfers because we had guys move on, like they do across the country now,” Jeter said. “ So we put together this team very quickly, and each year we seem to be adding good pieces.”
Perhaps the best piece was sitting right next to Jeter in the post-game press conference. Massner came to the Leathernecks before last season as a transfer from Northwestern State, and the Wapello, Iowa native became one of the best players in the conference. He was a second-team all-conference selection last season, and then was a first-team choice this season. Massner scored 1,065 points in his two years.
“I think, more than anything, he could score the ball,” Jeter said. “But I think his leadership has grown. He had a willingness to want to lead the group and take some responsibility, because that was new for him.”
Massner knew that for the Leathernecks to be successful, they had to work together.
“There was not the negative energy I felt like we had a lot of last year,” he said. “And that’s one thing I wanted as a leader this year, just not to get complaints about nicky-nack things. I didn’t want little things to become distractions.”
What this team produced was a run the program hasn’t had for a long time.
Massner was at the center of one of the best weeks in program history, when the Leathernecks swept a three-game homestand of games against North Dakota, South Dakota, and South Dakota State.
Massner had a program-record 46 points in the 92-80 win over North Dakota on January 23. Three nights later, he had the game-winning 3-pointer with less than a second to play in a 75-72 win over South Dakota. Two days after that, he scored 30 points as Western Illinois rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit to beat South Dakota State in overtime, 81-73.
The Leathernecks were in second place in the conference at that point, rare air for the program that late in the season.
The next step is to be near the top even later in the season.
Jeter has used the NCAA transfer portal effectively in the three seasons, but he’s also building a foundation within the roster. He loses Massner and fellow seniors Alec Rosner and Vuk Stevanic, but Bennett and forward Jesiah West, a selection to the conference’s all-defensive team, will return, as will K.J. Lee, who will be in the program for his third season. J.J. Kalakon, Elijah Farr and Cody Collinsworth, who came off the bench this season, will be back as well.
Bennett will be one of the biggest pieces. He didn’t play at all last season, but became a big part of this team, especially late in the season, when he averaged 14.8 points over the final four games.
“I think Q kind of sums up our program, where we are,” Jeter said. “We’re always overlooked, always kind of like ‘OK, yeah, but maybe this, maybe that,’ and that’s earned, so we have to do more and he has to do more as well, but the cool thing is he knows it, he wants it.
“We have to be better as a program taking that step to being recognized for the things we do well and it starts with discipline, more consistency. We made strides, we saw that with Q down the stretch. It was more consistency.”
Keeping players like Bennett and the others helps build a culture.
“Just that feeling of success, the back-to-back years of making progress and winning and putting ourselves in a position to be in a tournament, all that is positive,” Jeter said. “It’s a different climate now because you’re doing it with new bodies every year, but we seem to have been able to keep enough of that core to build off that.”
Jeter said the Leathernecks will lament how Sunday’s game got away. Western Illinois led 56-49 with 7:44 to play, then scored just four points the rest of the game.
“You hate to see a season end with the ball just not going in,” Jeter said. “You watch that last 10 minutes, the ball did not go in, the free throws, the little layups. It’s not the fault of our guys, they got themselves in position, it just didn’t go in and that happens sometimes.”
The months ahead, Jeter said, will be about making sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We’ll get another year with Q and this group,” he said. “It’s never been our effort that was the issue, it’s more about trying to get solid with who we need to be as Leathernecks. We’re still a work in progress, but we’re right on track.”
Photo: Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter watches during the second half of Sunday’s loss to St. Thomas in the Summit League quarterfinals. (Miranda Sampson/Inertia)