Kansas Wesleyan’s inspired play in the second half of its game Saturday night against Friends was reminiscent of another sensational Coyote team 10 years earlier.
The 2008-09 KWU squad compiled a 27-6 record, tied Sterling for the Kansas Conference regular season title, won the KCAC postseason tournament and advanced to the second round of the NAIA Division II National Championship.
Not coincidentally, 10 members of the team and head coach Gordon Reimer were in attendance Saturday at Mabee Arena for a 10-year reunion and celebration of that historic season. The team was recognized between the women and men’s games.
Staggered by a lackluster second quarter, the current Coyotes quickly regained control after the break and pulled away for an 81-56 KCAC victory over Friends.
Their 10th consecutive victory and 20th of the season (20-6) raises their record to 18-2 in conference play, half a game behind conference leader and No. 16-ranked Tabor (19-2). It also keeps them in the hunt to perhaps achieve what their predecessors did a decade earlier.
The 2018-19 Coyotes led 22-8 after one quarter, but settled for a precarious 29-25 halftime lead. They were outscored 17-7 the second quarter and didn’t score a point during an eight-minute span.
“Friends defended really well and we settled for some poor shots, we didn’t execute, our spacing was off,” said KWU coach Ryan Showman, who was Reimer’s assistant on the ’08-09 team. “We got back to halftime and regrouped and refocused, we made some adjustments. What you saw in the second half was the team that went out and defended.”
Friends (12-14, 12-7 KCAC) scored the first three points of the third quarter and trailed 29-28 with 8½ minutes left before the Coyotes broke loose.
A 16-2 run gave them a 45-30 lead with 4:24 left in the quarter and ballooned to 55-35 by the end of the period. Wesleyan continued to pull away and by game’s end had outscored the Falcons 52-31 the final 20 minutes.
Amanda Hill (SO/Rossville, Kan.) continued her stellar play of late, scoring a team- and career-high 16 points and grabbing a team-best nine rebounds off the bench. Courtney Heinen (JR/Axtell, Kan.) had 14 points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench, and Virja Lewis (SO/Kansas City, Kan.) 14 points and seven rebounds. Kayla Kivinski (SR/Port Richey, Fla.) added 10 points, five assists and four rebounds; Sydney Mortensen (SR/Wichita, Kan.) nine points, three rebounds and two steals; and Gabbie Miller (SR/Kiefer, Okla.) eight points, four rebounds, four steals and three assists.
Wesleyan shot 46.5 percent (33 of 71), easily won the rebounding battle 48-31 and forced 20 Falcons’ turnovers.
Friends shot 35 percent (20 of 57) and was led by Daija Styles’ 15 points while Tiffany Hurd added 11. Laramie Edens, the KCAC’s second-leading scorer, managed just five points – 11 below her average – on 2 of 8 shooting from the field.
The victory and reunion made it a special night for Showman.
“Some of the ladies from the team that I haven’t seen in so long … it was so good to see them,” he said. “It looked like they could all still play. I sat up there the first half of the men’s game and we told stories – my face hurts from smiling so much. That’s what it’s all about.”
Showman was quick to point out the similarities between the two teams to his current players.
“They were a special team and I told my team ‘if you want to be a special team you have everything out in front of you to do that,'” he said. “‘You have the make-up, there’s a lot of parallels from that team. That’s the exciting part about where we’re at right now. We still have goals in front of us that we want to accomplish.”
Wesleyan plays Bethel on Wednesday in North Newton, starting at 6 p.m., before returning home next Saturday for a marquee matchup against Tabor at 5 p.m. in Mabee Arena. The Bluejays are idle Wednesday after trouncing Saint Mary 64-45 Saturday in Hillsboro.
KWU 72, No. 20 Friends 67
Nathaniel Leach (JR/Houston, Texas) had no idea his mother would be in attendance to watch him play Wednesday in Kansas Wesleyan’s home basketball game against Ottawa.
He also didn’t know his grandmother was going to be in town, with his mom, to watch him play Saturday night against Friends.
“They just surprised me,” he said of his family, which made the trip to Salina from Houston. “My mom got here Wednesday and my grandma came in Thursday for this game. It just felt like I was playing back at home in high school. I just had fun and made the most of it.”
He certainly did.
Leach scored 14 points the final 8 minutes, 57 seconds of the game, including five crucial free throws the last 1:37, as KWU stunned the No. 20-ranked Falcons 72-67 before a sizeable crowd at Mabee Arena.
The Coyotes improved to 15-9 overall, 13-7 in the Kansas Conference, with their third consecutive victory. It was also their fifth win in their last six games and ninth in their last 11 outings. Friends slipped to 19-7 and 15-6 in the conference.
After failing to score and picking up three fouls in seven minutes of play the first half, Leach took over the down the stretch in the second half. His 3-point basket with 8:57 left gave Wesleyan a 52-48 lead and kick-started his heroics.
Clinging to a 64-61 lead, Leach threw a perfect bounce pass to Marquis Kraemer (SO/Aurora, Colo.) for a perfect layup, making it 66-61 with 2:03 left. His second 3 gave KWU a 59-54 lead with 6:20 remaining.
Up 70-67 with 35.5 seconds left, Jordan McNelly (JR/Salina, Kan,) missed two free throws, but Leach grabbed the rebound after the second miss, was fouled and made it a two-possession game by sinking one of two free throws for a 71-67 led with 30.6 seconds remaining.
Friends, which walloped the Coyotes 90-63 on Dec. 12 in Wichita, missed a 3-point attempt and Kraemer made one of two free throws with 14.8 seconds left, just before the Falcons turned it over on their final possession.
“I just found my rhythm and I played with aggression,” said Leach, a junior guard. “When the first 3 went in that was it and I made the second one I was like ‘I got to keep going and play with rhythm and aggression.'”
And what did his mother Jan think of his effort?
“She said ‘that’s how you’re supposed to play. That’s the Nathaniel I know,'” he said.
Leach said he asked his mom to stay for the rest of the season, but …
“She said she’s got to go to work,” he said with a laugh.
The game was close from start to finish. KWU’s biggest lead was 14-6 early in the first half while the Falcons’ biggest advantage was 43-28 in the second half.
As usual, the Coyotes won with defense. Friends shot 44 percent (22 of 50), just 3 of 23 beyond the 3-point arc, but stayed close by making 20 of 26 free throws. Jordan Murdock, the KCAC’s second-leading scorer, had 22 points – six below his average – on 6 of 15 shooting, including 1 of 8 from deep. He also had 10 rebounds.
“I thought we did a fantastic job on Jordan Murdock,” said KWU coach Anthony Monson, who assigned Jordan McNelly the task of guarding Murdock. “He had 22 points and nine of them came at the free throw line (9 of 10). We made him work for a lot of things.”
Papi Conley added 18 points and four assists for the Falcons.
Wesleyan shot 50 percent (27 of 54), 7 of 16 from long range, and 11 of 23 at the line. James Brooks (JR/Cherokee, Kan.) led the Coyotes with 21 points, including five 3-pointers, followed by Leach’s 14 points. AJ Range (SO/Junction City, Kan.) had 12 and Kraemer 11 along with five rebounds and three assists. Range also had a team-best seven rebounds as KWU won the rebounding battle 34-32.
“We’re so much deeper than they are,” Monson said. “It’s late, it’s February now and those legs are worn out. Those shots that fall in November and December, where you can shoot it a mile away, don’t become so easy any more.
“I challenged (McNelly) before with (Ottawa’s) Isaiah Palmer and he stepped up with that. I told him ‘you’ve got your hands full tonight (with Murdock).’ He responded great.”
Monson was pleased with Leach’s play after the slow start.
“Nate seems to always play pretty well against Friends,” he said. “That’s the game he shows up for. He did a fantastic job for us tonight. He knocked two huge 3s, he grabbed a big rebound, he was under control getting to the basket, which was fantastic.”
Leach said the victory was pivotal for his team.
“This is a momentum builder for us to carry on through the rest of the season and into the conference tournament,” he said.
“At the end of the day they just had to find a way to just grind this sucker out,” he said. “It’s just a big-time win for this program.”
Wesleyan travels to North Newton on Wednesday for an 8 p.m. game against Bethel, then returns home next Saturday to play Tabor at 7 p.m. in Mabee Arena.