WICHITA – The Kansas Wesleyan Coyotes had to wait nearly two weeks for a shot at redemption and they weren’t about to let the opportunity escape them.
Fueled by a swarming defense and stellar rebounding effort along with a balanced offensive thrust KWU pulled away in the second half for an 82-63 victory over Indiana University-Kokomo in a first-round game of the NAIA Men’s National Championship on Tuesday afternoon in the Garvey Center on the Friends University campus.
Tied 34-34 at halftime the fifth-seeded Coyotes (26-4) dominated the final 20 minutes, outscoring IUK 48-29.
The victory sends them into the second round and a game against fourth-seeded Morningside (Iowa) at 3 p.m. Wednesday in the Garvey Center. Morningside defeated Columbia (Mo.) 81-77 in Tuesday’s first game.
The game seemed like an eternity for 12th-ranked KWU after losing to seventh-seeded Sterling 75-66 in the quarterfinals of the Kansas Conference tournament February 22 in Mabee Arena.
“We knew we laid an egg,” Alex Littlejohn (SO/Newton, Kan.) said, “we knew we had to come back. Our practices coming in were super intense focusing on defense and all that. We wanted to prove that was a fluke and it was.”
Littlejohn recorded his 21st double-double of the season finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds to go along with seven assists. Thurbil Bile (JR/Centennial, Colo.), who entered the game averaging 6.1 points, scored a career-high 18 on 8 of 9 shooting to go along with six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals. He had 12 points the second half as the Coyotes fended off an IUK rally.
“Honestly, that loss to Sterling put a fire in everyone’s bellies,” Bile said. “This is my best personal game I’ve played and I did it against a really good team game as well. I’m not sure what it is. That feeling of loser goes home kind of puts you over the edge energy-wise way is the best way to put it.”
“We needed it,” KWU Anthony Monson said of Bile, a transfer from Lamar Community College. “He didn’t start off that way, he was a little bit soft, a little bit slow early on. Then he really manned up and decided to be the athlete we know he is. We need more of that from him.”
Cory Kaplan (JR/Merritt Island, Fla.) scored 13 and Jun Murdock (JR/Wichita, Kan.) had 11 points, four rebounds and four assists as the Coyotes shot a blistering 56.5 percent for the game (35 of 62) – 60.6 percent the second half (20 of 33). KWU outscored the Cougars in the paint 54-22.
While the offense was impressive, much of the work began on the defensive end where the Coyotes forced 14 turnovers that led to 20 points. IUK (23-9) shot 37.5 percent the second half (11 of 30), including 1 of 6 from beyond the 3-point line.
“It’s all defense because you can’t score if you don’t get stops,” Littlejohn said. “We worked on that making sure we knew what they wanted to do. We knew if we got the stops, we could get our offense going.
“We flexed our muscles the second half, I really love the job our guys did,” he said. “Our best offense is getting stops and getting runouts. I thought we did a good job of taking 3-point shots away from the guys that wanted to shoot them in the second half.”
After a see-saw battle the first half KWU quickly took control. The Coyotes scored the first six points of the second half that ignited a 24-8 run – Kaplan scoring 10 that included back-to-back NBA distance 3-pointers – and gave them a 58-42 lead with 12½ minutes left.
The Cougars weren’t finished, though. Following a timeout they scored 10 in a row and were within 58-52 with 9:21 remaining.
The Coyotes responded with an 8-3 burst; Littlejohn scoring back-to-back baskets. IUK got within 66-57 with 5½ left on four Ty Wills points but KWU ended the suspense with a decisive 12-0 run and a 76-57 lead with 2:47 remaining.
“Everybody was making shots,” Littlejohn said. “Cory hit two big threes and was finishing at the rim. Jun is the best player in the league, he controls everything, he makes all the plays, he’s very unselfish. Then Easton (Hunter) knocking down free throws, attacking … it’s everybody doing their job, it’s not just one person.”
IUK entered the game with a plus-5.1 per game rebounding advantage but the Coyotes outrebounded them handily 39-28.
“That was huge,” Monson said. “Anytime you outrebound your opponent you’ve got a good chance to win the game. Just taking the challenge and having everybody in there to rebound and they did a good job.”
Wills led IUK with 16 points off the bench. Leading scorer Hunter White had 11 – four below his season average (15.6). The Cougars also missed 10 of 17 free throw attempts.
The Coyotes will attempt to advance to the second round for the first time in school history. The 2006-07 team and last year’s team notched first-round victories before falling in the second round.
The KWU-Morningside winner advances to the Round of 16 beginning Monday inside Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo. Morningside is 23-7 this season and has won seven of its last eight – the loss 83-82 to Dordt in the semifinals of the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament.