Oklahoma Wesleyan was the favorite to win the Kansas Conference men’s basketball title in preseason polls of the media and league coaches.
The Eagles lived up to the billing in the first half of their game against Kansas Wesleyan on Tuesday. Fueled by an 18-2 run and blistering 69 percent shooting they rolled to an 18-point halftime lead and never relinquished control the second half in an 85-70 victory at Mabee Arena.
OKWU (4-2 overall, 2-1 KCAC) shot 59 percent for the game, limited KWU to 38.3 percent shooting, won the rebounding battle 37-24 and led by as many as 24 points in the second half.
“We got pretty much beat up in every way you possibly could in a game,” KWU coach Anthony Monson said. “They definitely took it to us, they beat us every which way – offensive boards, played with better pace, moved the ball better.”
OKWU bolted to an early 18-7 lead, but the Coyotes rallied with a 15-5 run to get within 23-22 with just under 10 minutes left in the half.
The Eagles, though, answered with the 18-2 surge, led 41-22 with 3 minutes left in the half and took a 50-32 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
“We did not play hard to start the game,” Monson said. “We didn’t move the ball, we didn’t play together, we didn’t guard. We did everything wrong that you could possibly do and they were on top of it and that’s why they’re good. They were a well-oiled machine tonight and made us pay for our lack of effort to start the game.”
The Coyotes (3-4, 1-2 KCAC) fought back in the second half and got within 67-54 with just under 9 minutes left. Leading 71-57 the Eagles pulled away one final time with a 10-3 burst and that gave them an 81-60 advantage with just over 3 minutes left.
Monson was generally pleased with the play of his reserves.
“Our bench actually did some really good things for us tonight,” he said. “In a lot of ways they actually played better than our starters did. They’re the ones who got us back in the game after the early run and they kept it a little bit within striking distance in the second half.”
The Coyotes top three scorers were reserves – Gabe Mack (JR/Milwaukee, Wis.) had 13 points and Dylan Hahn (SO/Yukon, Okla.) and Trey Gilbert (JR/Holcomb, Kan.) 11 apiece. KWU’s starting five combined for 23 points.
OKWU focused its defense on KWU’s leading scorer AJ Range (SR/Junction City, Kan.), who drew a crowd of defenders each time he touched the ball. He finished with six points and four rebounds.
“They packed it in and every time AJ got (the ball) they moved it,” Monson said. “They got in the paint and made it difficult for him and we were left with jump shots. We settled for jumpers a lot of times when we could have just drove it (to the basket) after we got the kickout. If we’re going to do that we’ve got to step up and knock down some shots.”
Monson also wasn’t happy with his team’s lack of aggression.
“We can’t not play aggressive,” he said. “We were timid all night, we didn’t execute our scouting report very well and the things we wanted to do that we’ve done in the past and we’ve had success with. You’ve got to give (OKWU) a lot of credit, they played hard, they did what they needed to do.”
KWU was 23 of 60 from the field, including 9 of 35 from 3-point range. OKWU shot 36 of 61, 7 of 21 from deep, and outscored the Coyotes 54-18 in the paint.
Kaleb Stokes led the Eagles with 28 points on 12 of 15 shooting and Brooks Haddock had 19 on 7 of 13 shooting that included 5 of 8 from beyond the arc.
The Coyotes are idle until next Tuesday when Bethany comes to Mabee Arena for an 8 p.m. contest. Their game against Saint Mary on Friday in Leavenworth was postponed because of COVID-19 concerns.