The Knox College men’s basketball team played a tough Midwest Conference opponent in the Illinois College Blueboys on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at Memorial Gym. The Prairie Fire came up short, losing to the Blueboys (8-5, 4-4 MWC) 87-81, despite almost making a momentous comeback.
Coming off a loss to Grinnell College, the Prairie Fire were looking to secure a victory against Illinois College to steady themselves for the remainder of 2014.
After a slow start, freshman Mike Martin made the first two Prairie Fire points to spark the offense. From there on, guard play became Knox’s strength as senior Eric Miller, junior Mitchell Murphy, and freshman sixth man Deandre Weathersby all took turns prolifically scoring the ball.
Weathersby had the best game of his young college career, scoring a total of 16 points. Five of them came in the first half during key stretches for the Fire.
“Deandre provided that extra gear we needed off the bench to keep things moving forward,” said junior guard Armand Stricklin.
Illinois College ran their offense well. Their execution helped them to catch the Prairie Fire off guard and expose defensive mistakes. Multiple times during their sets, ball screens and pick and rolls were used to break down the Fire defense.
“All of us could feel that our effort wasn’t where it needed to be but we needed to do something about it,” senior David Jones said.
Later into the half, guard play again became huge for the Fire as their guards made perimeter shots to open up the paint for Jones.
“Coach always preaches how within our offense, we need contribution from everybody for it to work effectively and efficiently,” Jones said. “I thought the outside shooting provided by Mitch and Eric really opened up the driving lanes for [Deandre] and the middle for inside touches with me and Mike and the other posts.”
At halftime, the Fire were down 41-25. Points off turnovers played a key role in the Blueboys lead, as IC scored 12 points on Prairie Fire turnovers in the opening half.
After the break the Fire came into the game strong burning the Blueboys on their first three possessions to cut down their lead. Jones started the run with two points inside the paint. Next a three pointer by Martin and another by Murphy helped to stoke the run. Jones spoke on the Fire’s level of energy coming out of the halftime break.
“[Tuesday] was our first home game with school in session, we wanted to show our supporters that the first half was not what our team is about.”
The run did not stop there, as Murphy began to heat from the floor, scoring eight points during the run for Knox. Once the Fire cooled, Jones sparked them again with a thunderous dunk to swing the momentum to their side.
During the Fire’s run, Illinois College remained calm and continued to run their offense while creating good shots. For all of Knox’s effort, they could not contain the Blueboys, who shot 58 percent from the field and 44 percent from distance in the second half.
The game began to slow down as the men pulled closer to drawing even with the Blue Boys, but turnovers and missed offensive opportunities halted the chances of a Fire comeback. With 15:21 remaining, Knox found themselves down just nine points after previously being down 17. Three consecutive turnovers later, IC built their lead back to 14.
Blueboys senior Justin Smith, from Notre Dame in Peoria, had a big game, scoring Illinois College 17 points. He and the other seniors for IC outlasted the Fire run and ultimately sealed their fate.
The Prairie Fire (1-14, 0-8 MWC) are now 0-3 to start 2014, but still have time to turn things around. With 10 games left this season, the Fire will continue to play hard and compete with whomever their opponent may be.
“If we come out with a lot of energy and play like a chip is on our shoulder for 40 minutes, then we can compete and beat teams in our league,” said Stricklin. “We have to have a desire to win like we did in that second half.”
Jones echoed Stricklin’s statements saying, “The intensity that we came out with in the second half needs to carry over to what we do in practice and for future games. We need to come out with a chip on our shoulder and something to prove, especially at home, to be successful. It’s the difference between, knowing what we need to do, and actually coming out and doing it.”
Knox will stay home this weekend when they take on Carroll University at Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday.