Sports / The Prairie Fire / January 22, 2009

Fire fades late in back-to-back contests

St. Norbert and Ripon added two more in a long string of tough losses over the weekend, as the Knox College men’s basketball team continues to look for their first win on the season. The Fire hosted the Ripon Red Hawks in a 73-64 defeat on Saturday, and the previous evening the St. Norbert Green Knights, losing 64-53.

The weekend stretched the losing streak to 13 for the Fire, including seven in conference. In dropping three consecutive conference games, Knox’s chances to make it into the tournament are quickly slipping away, creating a disappointing situation not only for Purlee in his first year as coach, but also for the seniors on the team, whose last chance is this year.

Friday’s game against the Green Knights found Knox entering Heimann Court as a big underdog. Coming in, the Knights were on top of the conference with a record of 11-1 and 5-0 in conference play.

Knox’s defense started the game out stiffly against the number 15 ranked team in the country, and the Fire was able to hang with the Knights for a time, until the sheer power of the visitors overwhelmed the Fire’s best efforts. The Knights went 20-for-35 from the field, and combined with some near perfect work from the free-throw line, the best efforts of Knox’s offense just was not enough to find the lead. Goedeke led the offense with 13 points, but the Knights matched his effort with two men in double figures, including one, Tom Katzfey, dropping 17 points on a perfect 5-for-5 from the field. It was a wholly dominant effort all-around for the Knights, as they won the rebound, 24-18, shooting percentage, 57 percent to 41 percent and scoreboard, 64-53, battles.

In the second half, the Fire was able to muster 31 points, topping St. Norbert’s effort in the first half. But the hole they were in proved too deep, and Norbert refused to lose, scoring 36 second-half points. Throughout the game, Knox had chances, including 14 turnovers by the men in green, but Knox just could not capitalize on it. Norbert’s ball movement was slick, their athleticism and ability to run just knocked Knox out.

“We were a little too passive tonight,” Purlee said. “I was happy at the half in that I liked where the score was at. I liked the pace and I liked the defense. There’s a reason why they beat the number one team in the country.” St. Norbert had, in fact, just beaten top-ranked Wheaton College in their previous game, and any time you face a team coming off that, it can be trouble.

“We haven’t been able to go on a 10-plus point run all year,” Purlee said. “12-0, 14-0, we’ve struggled all year to get a big run.” Still, Purlee would not be daunted, despite the path the season was taking. “The younger guys come from good programs and they recognize we do things the right way. Give credit to the seniors, a lesser group of kids would have said, ‘Screw it.’” Noble words, to back up noble efforts by a team constantly on the verge, though there is little doubt it wears on a coach.

After dropping a hard-fought game like that, the Fire were challenged again to turn around and hop back on the court the next day, to face, as Purlee said, “the class of the league for 30 years” in Ripon College. It was another even-seeming match-up, as the Red Hawks were having a less than spectacular season at 3-8 overall, and 1-4 in the conference coming in, though that looks admittedly better than the 0-12 overall, and 0-6 conference record of Knox.

Despite the tiring action of the previous evening, the Fire did their best against the Hawks, and ended up with two men in double figures in Goedeke at 18 points and sophomore guard Peter Cain at 14, including 4-for-8 from downtown. Sean O’Keefe, the freshman point guard who had started the previous night and finished with six assists and two points, fell back a bit, and was unable to score at all while dishing out four assists, also turning the ball over four times. O’Keefe has had recent success at the point though, and Purlee has made the decision to go with the youngster.

“We’ve done a poor job as a staff getting our kids to finish basketball games,” Purlee said. “It’s our job to get them to play hard and play at their highest level. We have not been able to get that, and I take responsibility for that.”

Without a doubt, this loss to Ripon was one of the most damaging to the psyche of the team. Knox pulled ahead by as much as nine, but watched it fade down the stretch, typifying the statement Purlee made about the team’s inability to finish games.

“We were up by nine, we let it get away,” Purlee said afterward, “and our kids… it was like a punch to the stomach. They’re no dummies, you know? They know it happened again.” As the clock wound down and the chances disappeared for the team as Ripon pulled ahead to beat the Fire, the strain was visible on the faces of every player on the team. They walked out of the locker room with hanging heads and there was not a happy face among them.

The game was not without its stars on both sides, as Ripon’s Scott Gillespie, the coach’s son, dropped 20 points on Knox, including 13 in the second half. If not for the undying efforts of junior Adam Estergard defending him, it could have been much worse.

“[Gillespie] is really good,” Purlee said. “Give Adam some credit. I mean, 35 minutes chasing Gillespie around five steals, 10 rebounds… He’s a player for the ages because he plays so hard.” It was an impressive effort for Estergard, and the team fed off his energy, but it ended up that the energy alone just was not enough.

Prior to the Millikin make-up game on Monday, the Fire sat at 0-13, 0-7 in conference, and looking down the barrel at another long second half of the season. With nine conference games left, the chances are there to do something, and the team has not lost its drive. Even so, the chance for a post season for these young men is slipping away. It would take an effort of seismic proportions for that post season run, but if Knox can find its identity on the court, perhaps they can make some noise down the stretch.

Merritt Rohlfing

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