PARK CITY – Kansas Wesleyan’s best basketball season in 15 years came to an end Saturday night at the hands of an all-too familiar antagonist.
Oklahoma Wesleyan defeated the Coyotes 67-54 in an Opening Round game of the NAIA Men’s National Championship inside Hartman Arena. It was their fourth loss to the Eagles this season and seventh in row since November, 2020.
KWU received an at-large bid to the tournament and upended No. 19-ranked Indiana-South Bend 85-76 Friday night in Hartman Arena in advancing to the tournament’s second day for just the second time in program history.
OKWU, the top seed in the Liston Quadrant and ranked third in the latest NAIA poll, denied the Coyotes the opportunity to advance in the Round of 16 for first time in school history with Saturday’s victory. The Eagles limited KWU to 34.5 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 47-28.
“We struggled to make free throws (10 of 16), clean up the glass and make bunnies all night long,” KWU coach Anthony Monson said. “When you play good teams you just can’t give them second and third opportunities. I thought we battled at the defensive end and played with a lot of heart at desire and that will carry you a long way but at the end of the day we didn’t make enough plays.”
While disappointing the final loss did nothing to diminish what the Coyotes accomplished during 2021-22. They started the season by winning 12 of their first 13 games then lost six of the next eight before finishing with nine victories in their last 13 games – two of the losses to Oklahoma Wesleyan.
Their 23-11 record was the program’s best since the 2006-07 season when KWU was 28-4 and qualified for the NAIA Tournament for the second time in school history (1950 the first).
“These guys did some stuff for this university that hasn’t been done for a very long time and I’m proud as heck of this team,” Monson said.
The future is bright with four starters and four of the top five reserves expected to return. A.J. Range and Tyus Jeffries (SR/Oklahoma City, Okla.) are the two seniors in the regular rotation who will depart – Range a five-year contributor and four-time All-Kansas Conference selection; Jeffries a valuable reserve.
Saturday’s finale was tussle for 36 minutes. Trailing 7-5 early on OKWU took the lead for good with a 7-0 run and led 30-19 with 4½ minutes left in the half. Eight consecutive points – the last six on back-to-back 3-pointers by Jun Murdock (SO/Wichita, Kan.) and Easton Hunter (FR/Colwich, Kan.) – got the Coyotes within 30-27 and they trailed 32-27 at halftime.
KWU scored the first four points of the second half and trailed 32-31 but the Eagles scored the next five. Trailing 56-44 the Coyotes mounted on last charge with an 8-2 surge — the last six on back-to-back 3-pointers by Hunter and Alex Littlejohn (FR/Newton, Kan.) – that got them within 58-52 with 4:09 left.
OKWU answered with a 9-2 closing spurt.
The Coyotes missed six free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one, the second half while the Eagles made 13 free throws the final 20 minutes. OKWU’s 47 rebounds including 14 on the offensive end.
“They won the 50-50 battle all night long and that’s something you can’t do against them,” Monson said. “They’ve been there done that; they’re experienced and understand what it means to compete at the highest level and we’re still learning.
“It’s a growth process and we just need to be a little bit better and we will.”
Hunter led KWU with 11 points and included three 3-pointers. Trey Duffey (SO/Topeka, Kan.) added 10 points and had five rebounds, Murdock had eight points and six rebounds and Littlejohn seven points and a team-high seven rebounds. KWU was 19 of 55 shooting including 6 of 23 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Murdock was forced to leave the game midway through the second half when he was fouled on a drive to the basket, fell and hit his chin on the court. He returned 3½ minutes later after being examined and receiving treatment.
“You’ve got to give our guys a lot of credit,” Monson said. “They didn’t give up and continued to battle. They didn’t quit.”
Branden Bird led OKWU (33-2) with 14 points while Jaden Lietzke and Taylen Miller each scored 11. The Eagles shot 41.5 percent (22 of 53) but just 3 of 18 from the perimeter. Lietzke also grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds.
Monson said the season and NAIA tournament experience bode well for the future.
“We’ll have a good offseason; we need to build on this,” he said. “We took some great, great steps for this program and now we need to make sure we take it a step further. We’ll continue to build this thing and make it better.”