When Anthony Monson arrived as men’s basketball coach at Kansas Wesleyan five years ago, he assured fans his teams would be stellar in one particular aspect of the game – defense.
True to his word the Coyotes had been one of the Kansas Conference’s best during his first four seasons. The 2020-21 team, though, hadn’t performed as well defensively through the first 18 games.
The last five games have been a much different story.
After surrendering 23 points the first eight minutes against archrival Bethany Thursday night they quickly found their defensive mojo. KWU held the Swedes to 33 points the rest of the way and rallied for a harrowing 60-56 victory inside Mabee Arena.
It was the Coyotes’ fourth consecutive victory after eight straight losses and raised their conference record to 8-11 (10-13 overall) heading into the regular season finale against Avila Saturday afternoon in Mabee Arena.
Bethany shot 42.3 percent for the game (22 of 52) but just 38 percent the second half (8 of 21). The Swedes also had 23 turnovers and KWU easily won the rebounding battle 34-23.
“If you go look at our last five games, we’ve given up 67 or less,” Monson said. “This program was always built on defense, that was kind of my thing when I came in.
“We kind of got away from it for a while, we were giving up 80s and 75 and 90 here and there. We’re just starting to dig back in and grind and really get back to who we are as an identity. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing we’re going to be Kansas Wesleyan and make people grind it out when they play us.”
Playing their second game in two nights the Coyotes appeared sluggish at the start. The Swedes made 10 of their first 16 shots and led 23-4 with 12 minutes left in the half.
That was enough. KWU finished the half on a 23-10 run including the final seven points and trailed 33-27 at the break.
Bethany (10-12, 9-11 KCAC) scored 10 of the first 15 points the second half and led 43-32 with 15½ minutes left before the Coyotes took control for good.
A 25-12 burst gave them a 57-55 lead – Brayden White (SR/Topeka, Kan.)’s three-point play tying the game with 3:25 left and AJ Range’s basket giving them the lead – their first of the game – with 2:29 remaining.
Bethany missed two shots, three of four free throws and had two turnovers the rest of the way.
Jalen Behr made the first of two free throws to get the Swedes within 59-56 with 4.7 seconds left. He intentionally missed the second, but Range grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made one of two free throws with 2.5 seconds left to seal the deal.
“Obviously starting out the game 23-4 is not great defense,” said White, who was superb off the bench with nine points, four assists and three steals. “The second part of the first half and the second half we focused on the defense. I really think we locked down there and that’s what started (the comeback).”
“We made them work on every possession,” Monson said. “The first five minutes they didn’t have to work, they just ran down the court, dribbled wherever they wanted, threw it up and made a shot. After that first five minutes I told our guys there’s a lot of game left, don’t panic, keep doing what we do, and we’ll grind this sucker out.”
Monson said the defense also gave the offense a boost.
“Bethany did a great job switching some things and taking us out of our rhythm, making it difficult on us,” he said. “I told the guys after the game when the offense bogs down you have your defense to lean on and you’ve just got to get a stop and you’ve got to get runouts and you’ve got to score in transition.”
Monson was especially pleased with White’s contributions.
“He’s a really smart, intelligent player,” he said. “Sometimes he tries to be a little too cute – passive aggressive I guess is a good way to look at his offensive game. Tonight, he decided ‘I’m going to take it, I’m going to get contact, I’m going to flip (the ball) up there, I’m going to be under control, I’m just going to orchestrate (the offense).’ He’s a huge reason why we won the game tonight.”
Micah Lovett (FR/Tulsa, Okla.) was another huge reason, finishing with a team-best 12 points – nine in the second half – and had five rebounds.
“Micah’s just a gamer,” Monson said. “Nobody’s going to say his shot’s pretty. But he just knows how to make plays and make things happen. The more he’s on the floor the smarter he’s getting, too.”
“It was a big game and when we were down, we just came together as a team, got stops on defense and I feel like that helped a lot,” Lovett said. “Defense created offense.”
Range finished with 11 points on 5 of 6 shooting and had a team-high eight rebounds. The Coyotes shot 42.2 percent (19 of 54), 4 of 14 beyond the arc.
Dylan Smith led Bethany with 18 points – 12 in the first 6½ minutes of the game.
A victory over Avila in the finale Saturday would give KWU a top eight finish and home game Monday in the first round of the KCAC tournament. Tip-off will be at 2 p.m., inside Mabee Arena.