BLOOMINGTON, Ill- It was an NCAA Tournament atmosphere in the midst of November on Saturday night. And 15th-ranked UMHB answered the call.
With Illinois Wesleyan fans packing the stands, and a vocal home crowd, the Crusaders emerged with a 71-68 win over IWU in the championship game of the Sikma Hall of Fame Invitational. UMHB heads back to the Lone Star State with a 2-0 record.
“That’s why we play these games,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll said postgame. “It was a physical game last night. Had to find a way to win that one. Tonight, we came out in the first half and played lights-out basketball. And when they made us play Illinois Wesleyan basketball in the second half, we hung on. We never gave up the lead in the second half.”
UMHB never trailed at any point after Payton Brooks’ layup 32 seconds into the game gave The Cru a 2-0 lead. But IWU came close. With 6:51 left in the game, Trey Bazzell connected on a 3-pointer for the Titans, cutting UMHB’s lead to 60-59. Then came a 7-0 Crusader scoring run. Time and time again throughout the second half, IWU cut the deficit to two or three points, only to have UMHB respond with a big shot of its own.
“Some of that stuff, you just can’t coach,” Carroll said. “Like the ability to score when things break down at the end of the shot clock and we need a bucket. We have several guys that can make those shots. I think all four of those guards hit a shot that kept the lead or extended the lead. My hat’s off the guys. That’s them working, having great ability and using it.”
With 1:13 left, IWU’s Harrison Wilmsen got a layup to fall, bringing the Titans within four points, 69-65. But Josiah Johnson, who led The Cru with 21 points, answered by converting on a jump shot that extended the advantage back to six. Then with 35 seconds left, IWU countered, as Hakim Williams connected on a 3-point shot that electrified the home crowd of 1,687 inside the Shirk Center. The noise level was deafening, as the 3-pointer cut the UMHB lead to 71-68.
UMHB missed two free throws down the stretch, but iWU missed four of its own at the line in the final 35 seconds. A missed layup in the paint with three seconds remaining was the Titans’ final shot, and allowed the Crusaders to come away with the victory.
Communication was a key component in UMHB’s performance through both halves, especially in a hostile road environment. It also allowed the Crusaders to execute down the stretch in the key moments when IWU was threatening to take the lead.
“That’s why we leaned on the returners today, if you look at the minutes,” Carroll said. “With a great crowd and a great atmosphere, that’s where communication can break down with guys who haven’t been through it or been together and built the trust and chemistry. So that’s why we leaned on the returners and they did a really nice job keeping everything organized and communicating.”
Right out of the gate, UMHB’s defensive intensity led the way, contesting IWU’s shots and challenging the Titans with focused pressure on the ballhandler. The Titans turned the ball over on their first possession, then missed a 3-pointer and a layup before getting on the board with Ryan Sroka’s 3-pointer at the 17:01 mark.
The defensive intensity led to UMHB’s success on the offensive end, as the Crusaders gained momentum and made it challenging for the Titans to counter on the offensive end.
“When you haven’t played against us and our style, it can be a little shocking,” Carroll noted. “As the game went on, Illinois Wesleyan figured out ways to handle the pressure better and they had only four turnovers in the second half, which was huge for them.
“But that’s going to be our calling card all year. Our defense has to lead the offense, especially early on, while we’re still working on chemistry and working out the kinks of the new offense. We’re going to have to really put pressure on other people and go defense to offense.”
Against IWU, who had tremendous size, especially in the post, offensive rebounds did not come easily. But another key to UMHB’s victory came in turning offensive boards into points, and The Cru finished with nine second-chance points on 10 offensive rebounds. Those nine second-chance points came in critical spots, such as at the end of the 7-0 run late in the second half, when Zachary Engels rebounded a missed 3-pointer and sent the ball to Maurice Pinnock, who promptly drained a jump-shot.
“In big spots, and situationally, we rebounded really well,” Carroll said. “There at the end of the game, when we got some misses, we were able to come up with big stops. That’s a big, athletic, strong [IWU] team that is well-coached and disciplined. You have to play a certain way to beat them and I was really happy with the guys.”
Points: Johnson (21), Engels (13), Wright (11)
Rebounds: Johnson (7), Butler (5), Zamiara (5), Pondant (5)
Assists: Johnson (4), Beard (3), Pinnock (2)
UMHB resumes its non-conference schedule at Texas Lutheran on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Seguin, Texas. TLU is 0-2, coming off a 75-73 loss to McMurry in Abilene on Saturday.