Easton Hunter (FR/Colwich, Kan.)’s hot hand propelled Kansas Wesleyan to a big lead at the start and his teammates made sure it held up.
Hunter scored 15 points the first 4½ minutes, staking the Coyotes to a quick 17-2 advantage and they never looked back en route to an 87-71 Kansas Conference and Senior Day victory over Avila Saturday afternoon in their regular season finale inside Mabee Arena.
The victory helped KWU secure the No. 7 seed in the Kansas Conference tournament and a return bout against Avila, the No. 10 seed, at 7 p.m. Monday in Mabee Arena. The winner advances to the quarterfinals against No. 2-seeded Oklahoma Wesleyan Wednesday in Bartlesville, Okla.
The top four seeds – No. 1 Bethel, No. 2 OKWU, No. 3 Ottawa and No. 4 McPherson – have first-round byes and begin play Wednesday.
Hunter was spectacular early on making his first five shots, four beyond the 3-point line. He scored all 18 of his points the first half on 6 of 7 shooting – 5 of 6 from deep – as the Coyotes raced to a 45-30 halftime lead.
“He’s one of the best if not the best freshmen in the conference,” said Coyote center AJ Range (SR/Junction City, Kan.), who finished with a game-high 21 points. “Just seeing him start off hot like that really helped us out, got us into the lead. He seemed unguardable and they kept leaving him open.”
KWU coach Anthony Monson wholeheartedly agreed.
“You’ve got to credit Easton for hitting the shots, but you’ve got to credit his teammates for getting him the ball and finding him, giving him open looks and him having the confidence to knock them down,” he said.
“Easton’s a special freshman, I think he’s the best freshman in the league – I don’t care what the stats say. When a guy comes in as a freshman and shoots 40-some from the 3-point line and starts and never turns the ball over, in my book he should be Freshman of the Year.”
Avila stayed within striking distance the second half and got as close as seven (71-64) with 5½ minutes left. But five consecutive points from backup point guard Micah Lovett (FR/Tulsa, Okla.) sparked a decisive 13-2 burst that made it 84-66 with 1½ minutes remaining.
Hunter’s fireworks helped open things up inside for big men Range, Trey Duffey (SO/Topeka, Kan.) and CJ Weathers (JR/Allen, Texas). Duffey finished with 14 points and nine rebounds while Weathers had 13 points and five rebounds off the bench. KWU outscored Avila 48-20 in the paint.
“Our bigs were fantastic,” Monson said. “We high-low (passed) them to death. They just rolled in the post touches and we did a really good job with patience and letting them get to their spots inside and for the most part finishing.”
The Coyotes shot a white-hot 54.4 percent (31 of 70) for the game. They also won the rebounding battle 36-20 and had 16 second chance points to Avila’s three.
Brandon Phillips scored 20 and Tyree King 19 for Avila, which shot 44 percent (23 of 52).
KWU sent seniors Nate Leach (SR/Houston, Texas) and Brayden White (SR/Topeka, Kan.) out in grand style and they contributed early and often. White had nine points, nine assists and three steals while Leach finished with four points, three steals and two rebounds.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to Brayden White and Nate Leach,” Monson said. “They brought a lot of energy, they made things happen, they stepped up on Senior Night when we needed them to. For them to have the end game they had here at the end of the regular season, I couldn’t be happier for them.”
The Coyotes enter the postseason riding a four-game winning streak that comes after an eight-game losing streak. They finished the regular season 11-13 overall and 9-11 in conference play.
“It’s definitely big because we need four wins to win the conference tournament and we know what it takes to get four wins in this winning streak,” Range said.
Monson believes his team is ready for the postseason.
“We went through a rough time, January was not a fun month,” he said, referring to the eight-game skid. “My dad made a statement to me that ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do’ and I think our team’s kind of the epitome of that right now.
“We’ve got some tough guys who want to get back to who we are, get back to guarding – that’s the first time in five games we’ve given up 70 points. Just playing to our strengths and playing the hot hand that night and rolling with whoever it is.”