HEADING TO HARTMAN! Late rally sends Coyotes past Southwestern 76-71 in KCAC Semifinal

3/3/2024 | Men’s Basketball | Box Score
Asked how his Kansas Wesleyan basketball had just pulled off a comeback for the ages against No. 9-ranked and third-seeded Southwestern coach Anthony Monson began with a quote from a former Coyote player and renowned player development coach Phil Beckner.“Phil has a saying that I’ve used all year – ‘find a way or find an excuse,'” he said. “That just sums it up.”The Coyotes indeed found a way in the most improbable way possible. Trailing the entire game, they took their first lead with 26.5 seconds left on two Jun Murdock free throws then added four more freebies enroute to an incredible 76-71 victory in the semifinals of the Kansas Conference Tournament on Saturday night inside Mabee Arena.The second-seeded Coyotes (23-7) will play fourth-ranked and top-seeded Oklahoma Wesleyan in the championship at 8 p.m. Monday in Hartman Arena in Park City – the first title game for KWU since the tournament moved there.“Game’s 40 minutes long for a reason,” Monson said. “We only led for about 25 seconds but it was the most important 25 seconds.”It appeared that would not be the case most of the night. Southwestern (24-5) scored the game’s first eight points, led by as many as 12 (34-22) in the first half and as many as 11 (57-46) in the second half. Justin DeMaria’s field goal with 3:35 left in the game made it 71-64 and it remained that way until a Murdock basket with 2:07 left.After a Southwestern missed shot Thurbil Bile scored and cut the deficit to 71-68 with 1:18 left. After another errant Moundbuilder shot Alex Littlejohn got the Coyotes within 71-70 with a field goal with 36.5 seconds left.Southwestern’s Andrew O’Brien then missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity with 29 seconds left and Murdock’s two free throws 12.6 seconds later gave KWU its first advantage, 71-70.Southwestern’s Cevin Clark, the NAIA’ s leading scorer, missed a 3-point attempt and Littlejohn was fouled on the rebound. His two free throws with 4.2 seconds left capped the Coyotes’ resurrection.Clark, who entered the game averaging 26.5 points, finished with 18 – two the second half on 1 of 8 shooting. KWU outscored Southwestern 12-0 in the final 3:35, the Moundbuilders missing their last four shots, a free throw and committing two turnovers. They scored two points the final 6:47.The Coyotes once again relied on Murdock and Littlejohn to pull them through. Littlejohn finished with 29 points and 16 rebounds while Murdock had 21 points and seven assists.“We just put the ball in our two best players’ hands,” Monson said when asked how his team managed to prevail. “They’re both All-Americans, they’re two of the best players in the league, they make me as a coach look really, really good.”“The main thing is we all believed,” Murdock said. “We wanted that game bad, we wanted to go play for a championship and we never stopped fighting. This team is built for that. When our back is against the wall, we give our all.”KWU closed the first half on a 12-4 run and trailed 41-38 at the break. Littlejohn had a double-double, 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Murdock 10 points and five assists the first 20 minutes.Littlejohn had 91 points and 43 rebounds in the Coyotes’ three victories over Southwestern this season.“There’s a lot of teams that are bigger than us, but we’ve got heart,” he said. “We may not be the biggest, but we’ve got heart and we’re going to do what we need to do to get the win. It was now or never and knew what we were playing for and at the end of the day we got it.”KWU shot 43.5 percent (27 of 62) and was 4 of 14 from long distance – the four in the first half.Clark led Southwestern with 18 points and O’Brien had 13 and seven rebounds. The Moundbuilders shot 42.4 percent and were 10 of 26 from long range but just 2 of 9 in the second half.Monson had high praise for Murdock’s defensive effort against Clark who was 7 of 17 shooting.“Clark is a heck of a player,” he said. “(Murdock) doesn’t lead the league in steals or anything else but he’s the best defender in the league, I don’t care what anybody says. When he does what he does on that end of the floor, gets you 20-plus points on the other end of the floor and plays 40 minutes there ain’t nobody in the league doing that.”“I just tried to pressure him but like coach said that was a team effort,” Murdock said. “Everybody had my back helping me any time he tried to drive. He’s likes to go right hand and they had help on my back side.”Oklahoma Wesleyan (28-2) defeated Saint Mary 90-74 in Saturday’s other semifinal. The Eagles downed KWU 82-66 January 20 in Mabee Arena in their only matchup this season. OKWU has won the last 10 games against the Coyotes but that will be meaningless Monday.“It means everything,” Murdock said of playing for the title. “It’s been a goal of mine (to win a championship) since I got to college and now, I’ve finally got a chance to do it.”“These guys are as mentally tough as it gets, they never quit and find a way,” Monson said. “We’ve had some ups and downs this year. I always remind them we were 4-4 at one point and now we’re 23-7 and playing for a championship.”