MACOMB, Ill. – All season long IUPUI has struggled to close out opponents in the final minutes. It briefly seemed like they turned the corner after consecutive close wins against Oral Roberts and South Dakota State, but they were back at it again Saturday night at Western Illinois. After 35 minutes of back and forth, IUPUI led by two, but Western Illinois closed the game with a 21-10 run to beat IUPUI 78-69 and split the season series.
Darell Combs snapped out of his offensive funk and scored 21 points to lead IUPUI. He had averaged just 10.5 points per game over the previous four and hadn’t shot over 40 percent in the previous five games. Ron Patterson scored 17 points off the bench and continued his strong three-point shooting making five of seven. He’s now 15-for-25 in his last four games. Four of the five Western Illinois starters finished in double-figures led by Dalan Ancrum with 20 points.
Neither team could gain much separation in the first half and Western Illinois took a one-point lead into the break. The second half played out similarly. Western Illinois got a layup from Garret Covington after the eight-minute T.V. timeout to put the Leathernecks up 54-49. Combs stole the ball a minute later and drew a foul in the fast break, making both free throws to pull within three poitns. T.J. Henderson stole the ball on the following possession which led to a 3-pointer from Patterson to even the score. Mike Miklusak answered back with a 3-pointer of his own to retake the lead, but Aaron Brennan hit back-to-back baskets to put IUPUI up 59-57 with 4:46 left.
Unfortunately for IUPUI, at that point things went downhill. Despite using just seven players all game, Western Illinois wasn’t in any foul trouble and didn’t struggle with fatigue. Instead, they wore down IUPUI oustcoring the Jaguars 34-26 in the paint and 16-11 at the free-throw line. 10 of those free throws came in the final 4:46.
Western Illinois called timeout after IUPUI took the two-point lead and Covington hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. After the four-minute T.V. timeout, Ancrum went to the line and hit two free throws to push the lead to three. Patterson missed a 3-pointer on the other end and C.J. Duff doubled Western Illinois’s lead by hitting a jumper, drawing a foul on Henderson and converting the three-point play. Ancrum hit two more free throws with 1:47 to go to put Western Illinois back up six, 69-63. After a missed 3-pointer from Combs, Covington hit another jumper to put Western Illinois up eight. The Leathernecks shot eight more free throws in the final minute and IUPUI couldn’t catch up.
Sometimes these losses happen. Often losses are excused by the fact that you can’t win them all. Each of IUPUI’s losses individually could fit in that category, but they’re piling up. All three losses in the current streak have big questions attached. Why did IUPUI lose their late lead against Denver? Why did IUPUI lose by 30 to a team they beat twice last year and that lost their best player? Why did IUPUI stumble down the stretch against a team they beat by 18 earlier this year and that only played seven players? The Jaguars have now lost six of their last eight games and they needed overtime in one of their two wins. They are now tied for last place in the Summit League and are staring down the number one team for their next match up, North Dakota State.