PARK CITY – Anthony Monson knew what his Kansas Wesleyan basketball team had to do to have a chance against No. 19-ranked Indiana University-South Bend and he shared it with his staff.
“I kept saying over and over to my assistants ‘we’ve got to get through the first five minutes. Get through the first five minutes and just settle in,'” he said.
The Coyotes did just that scoring nine of the game’s first 11 points and never looked back en route to an 85-76 victory in the Opening Round of the NAIA Men’s National Championship on Friday night inside Hartman Arena.
KWU, the ninth seed in the Liston Quadrant, advances and a game against Kansas Conference foe, quadrant top seed and No. 3-ranked Oklahoma Wesleyan at 6 p.m. Saturday in Hartman.
The victory was Wesleyan’s first in the NAIA tournament since 2007 and was Monson’s 99th at KWU. No. 100 would send the Coyotes into next weekend’s Round of 16 for the first time in school history under the new NAIA 64-team format. KWU reached the Round of 16 in the NAIA Division II Tournament in 2007, a 32-team bracket.
Wesleyan (23-10) led wire-to-wire in one of its best efforts of the season. The Coyotes shot 46 percent from the field, won the rebounding battle by 11 and perhaps most impressively limited the Titans to 3 of 20 shooting from the perimeter. They came in averaging 10 made 3-pointers (10 of 27) and had 17 games in which they made 10 or more – one with 19 and another with 17.
The Coyotes, though, put the kibosh to it all.
“We just made sure somebody was there,” Monson said of the defensive strategy. “We didn’t play a whole lot of help-side (defense), we put guys on islands (guarding one-on-one) trying to make sure they didn’t penetrate and kick (the ball back outside for shots).
“We were okay giving some twos as long as they were contested but we did not want to give up 3-point shots and I thought our guys did a really good job tonight.”
“We just stuck to them and made them make tough (shots),” KWU guard Jun Murdock (SO/Wichita, Kan.) said. “They were going to have to make pull-up threes in our face.”
IUSB got within 9-8 after KWU’s fast start but the Coyotes quickly pulled away again, going on a 19-3 run that gave them a 28-11 lead with 6½ minutes left in the half. They led 36-23 at the break after the Titans scored the last four points of the half.
IUSB scored the first basket of the second half but KWU answered with three consecutive 3-pointers, two by Easton Hunter (FR/Colwich, Kan.), and led 45-27 with 18:17 left.
The margin was 22 (62-40) after two Alex Littlejohn (FR/Newton, Kan.) free throws with 9½ minutes but the Titans weren’t finished.
A 16-2 burst closed the gap to 63-56 with 6:47 remaining but the Coyotes scored the next five – two on Murdock free throws and a Littlejohn rebound and follow shot – and gradually built the lead back to 14 (81-67) with 1:00 left.
“When situations like that come about you’ve just got to calm down and think the game as well as play it but don’t over-think,” said reserve guard Tyus Jeffries (SR/Oklahoma City, Okla.), who provided a crucial off the bench with 12 points, eight the first half, and two steals. “This was really my first big game so I had to come out and bring energy.”
Jeffries was joined in double figures by four teammates – Cory Kaplan (SO/Merritt Island, Fla.) and Marcel Dean (SO/Tucson, Ariz.) also scored 12 apiece while AJ Range (SR/Junction City, Kan.) and Littlejohn each had 11 as KWU shot 49 percent (30 of 61), including 8 of 24 from deep. Range also grabbed eight rebounds, Kaplan seven and Murdock had five assists.
The fast start was pivotal after the Coyotes’ 12-day layoff following their loss to Oklahoma Wesleyan in the semifinals of the KCAC Tournament.
“It was what we needed, definitely,” Range said. “We didn’t know how they were going to come out but Monson said ‘keep rushing (the ball) down court and get good shots’ and it worked out really well.”
“It was just lots of film and they had us going hard in practice every day,” Murdock said of the preparations. “Coach told us all week we can’t play tentatively; it’s another basketball game and we’ve got to go out there and play our game and that’s what we did.”
“Not playing for so long, just that rust, I thought we were pretty sharp and I thought we let that energy on the defensive end carry us,” he said. “Guys just made plays.”
Donyell Meredith led IUSB (25-7) with 26 points while Dylan Allen had 17.
Saturday’s opponent is no stranger. The Eagles (32-2) were the KCAC’s regular season and postseason tournament champions and defeated Saint Katherine (Calif.) 71-54 in Friday night’s first game in Hartman Arena.
OKWU downed the Coyotes twice during the regular season, 86-69 November 23 in Bartlesville, Okla., and 85-56 January 19 in Mabee Arena.
Monson and Company first wanted to spend a few moments enjoying Wesleyan’s first NAIA Tournament victory in a decade and a half.
“Just really proud and excited for the program, the university, the city of Salina – it’s been a long time since we’ve been here,” Monson said. “It’s just great to get a win and move on.”