The Kansas Conference postseason tournament is still two weeks away, but Kansas Wesleyan’s game against Saint Mary on Saturday night had a playoff atmosphere for Coach Anthony Monson.
The Coyotes closed the contest on a 12-4 run and defeated the Spires 78-71 in a back-and-forth duel at Mabee Arena. It was their seventh victory in the last eight games and puts them in a three-way tie for fifth place in the conference – half a game out of third, one game out of second and two games out of first.
The top eight teams in the final standings qualify for the KCAC’s postseason tournament.
“I think this was as close to a playoff game as you can get,” Monson said. “You had two teams fighting for a lot. We’re fighting for positioning and seeding and they’re fighting just to get in the tournament. Neither team wanted to lose this game, you’re down to five games and trying to find a way to get a win any way you can and that’s what we did tonight.”
The Coyotes’ way came victorious primarily because of A.J. Range and Brendon Ganaway (SR/Houston, Texas), who combined for 47 points – Range 25 (along with 12 rebounds) and Ganaway 22. They were a combined 19 of 22 from the field – Range 11 of 12 and Ganaway 7 of 10. Ganaway was also 6 of 6 at the free throw line.
Trailing 67-66 with 3½ minutes left, Daekwon Gross (JR/Kansas City, Mo.) scored inside to give the Coyotes a 68-67 lead and ignited an 11-1 burst that made it 77-68 lead with 39.7 seconds left.
“I just think we made winning plays,” Monson said. “We found a way to make the buckets we needed to make, make the winning plays here, get the stop there, get a rebound here … When you get late in the game those are what matter. It’s nice that we’ve got guys that are becoming go-to guys for us and our role players stepping in and doing a good job, too.”
Gross, who recently moved into the starting lineup after battling a knee injury most of the season, played a key role. He scored eight points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked a shot in 20 minutes.
“He’s getting more and more comfortable and hopefully that knee can hold up for us,” Monson said. “We’re praying (his kneecap) doesn’t pop out of place again. Just a lot of big play, big shots when he plays.”
Range notched his 10th double-double of the season and was a go-to guy Saturday.
“I’m just letting it happen,” he said. “Today I felt I had to be more aggressive. (Three-point) shots were falling the first half for my teammates, so I felt I had to get some offensive rebounds, get more kick-outs, whatever I needed to do.”
“He’s an all-conference player,” Monson said of Range. “You take it for granted sometimes that he can make shots down low all the time and how big and strong he is. He’s a leader of the program. When the game’s on the line he’s got to deliver for us and that’s what he’s doing.”
The Coyotes led 34-32 at halftime and built a 43-36 lead early in the second half, but the Spires rallied. They led 58-54 with 8½ minutes, but KWU battled back. The game was tied four times before the Coyotes’ late burst.
Both teams shot well – KWU 53 percent (28 of 53) and Saint Mary 51 percent (28 of 55). The Coyotes 5 of 16 from 3-point range and 17 of 24 at the free throw line while the Spires were 8 of 20 from deep and 7 of 10 at the line. KWU won the rebounding battle 30-23 and outscored Saint Mary 46-32 in the paint.
Brad Hailey led Saint Mary (12-13, 8-13 KCAC) with 17 points.
Range sounded a warning to his teammates about the importance of the four remaining regular-season games – two at home against McPherson and Oklahoma Wesleyan, and two on the road against Southwestern and KCAC lead Ottawa.
“Four games left and I told the guys after the game every game matters,” he said. “If we win out we’ve got a good chance to getting a good seed for the conference tournament.”
The Coyotes play Southwestern on Wednesday in Winfield. The Moundbuilders are one of the teams tied with KWU in the standings after defeating York 113-110 in double overtime Saturday in York, Neb.