The Knox College men’s basketball team ended its sixteen-game losing streak last Saturday when they faced their archenemies, the Fighting Scots of Monmouth College.
The 70-65 victory, at a packed Glennie Gymnasium, left the Scots fans stunned. The tip was won by Knox, but junior Adam Estergard quickly turned it over. Monmouth had the chance to strike first, but fouled freshman Ben Wetherbee. The Prairie Fire jumped out to a five-point lead, but the Scots would have none of that, and quickly tied the game up.
In the first 12 minutes of the game, there were five lead changes before the Scots threatened to take over, leading by as much as 11 with 2:43 left. Some nice post play by freshman Alex Schobert earned a lay-up, senior Rusty Baker giving up his body for the team and going 3-for-4 from the line, and a sweet jumper by freshman Ben Wetherbee cut the lead to six.
The second half opened with the ball in Monmouth’s hands, but the lockdown defense of the Fire was enough for them to be forced to the perimeter. Try as they might, it was a full minute off the game clock before the Fire had the ball in their hands, as the Scots were able to take the offensive glass and get second chances. Luckily the Scots could not drop the ball in the bucket, and after a rebound by Estergard and some sweet ball work, Schobert, who ended with eight points and two rebounds in 21 minutes, dropped a jumper to shorten the lead to four.
The Scots would continue to lead for most of the second half, though never by more than six, and the Fire were within one point on several occasions. Wetherbee, shooting 4-for-14 on the night, was forcing some shots, but as coach Rob Purlee noted, “Shooters keep shooting”. Wetherbee did, and ended with 12 points, second highest on the team. It was sophomore Matt Geodeke’s presence inside, however, that proved the difference maker in this game. Geodeke would go 4-for-9 from the field, and 10-for-12 from the free-throw line to total 18 points, the team high, exerting his will on all who stepped into his domain.
With six minutes left, the Scots sat on top by six at 60-56, and the Fire had them right where they wanted them. Geodeke cut the lead in half with a lay-up, then Wetherbee did it again, going 1-for-2 off a foul. With the lead at one, the Scots called a timeout, and as the great sports philosopher C. Daniel Wolff said, “Huddle means trouble.” The Scots, no doubt looking for another easy win, were on their heels, and were about to be knocked on their collective back. Their crowd could do nothing to aid their team’s failings.
With a minute left and up by one, Wetherbee fouled in what could have been a very poor situation, but the shooter took only one of the two, and the sixth tie of the game was in effect. The game was sealed when senior Zach Kirven, who Purlee later dubbed “MVP,” made a lay in, and was fouled by a Fighting Scot. Stepping to the line, Kirven had the chance to put it away.
“I knew if I made that free throw, it would be real tough for them,” Kirven said, who finished with 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting in 18 minutes. “I knew it was what had to be done. As I saw it, it was my contribution to make that free throw.”
The fans on both sides held their breath as the ball slipped silently through the net, then about a third exploded in cheering. Knox was up by three with 22 seconds left. Monmouth tried all it could, lofting a three to try to tie it, but Knox snagged the rebound, and Rusty Baker slipped in a quick, slick lay-up to seal the deal.
“It’s about making plays in crunch time and that’s what they did there,” Purlee said, after the game. “That last play of the game, we asked ourselves, ‘What’s our two best assets? Geodeke and Ben.’ And anybody in our program knows that Matt is as good at slipping screens as anybody we have. So we… put him out in space and they put the hedgehog on Ben and Geodeke slips and they go hedge on Geodeke and Ben’s going to get the ball at the top of the key and make the play one-on-one. So Matt does a good job of slipping, Adam makes a good pass and then Zach had the know how to dive in there.” It was a play that will go down in the annals of the rivalry between these schools. Purlee, a 2004 graduate of Monmouth, enjoyed the win especially.
“You can imagine how sweet this win was,” he said, with a smile.
Knox sat at (1-16, 1-9) on the season, and though essentially eliminated from post-season play, the team, especially the seniors, are still ready to go out there and keep it rolling.
“The biggest thing for (Knox/Monmouth) is that it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, try to be a hero,” Baker said. “The biggest thing coach told us was to play within ourselves. Obviously we all knew it was a big game, especially with the monkey of being winless on our back. There’s not a team left on our schedule we cannot beat. Grinnell’s going to be a challenge.”
Rarely is there a sweeter win for a team than one such as this, and with any luck, this could be the catalyst for a very interesting rest of the season. Kirven, one of the seniors on the team, is optimistic about where it could end.
“We definitely want to win the rest of our home games,” he said, “make a good showing, and raise a few eyebrows. Hopefully we can give the young guys a good feeling going into next year.”
The youngsters on the team just tasted that sweet narcotic of their first rivalry win, and if they have the urge to chase that dragon, the future for this young team is frighteningly bright. Knox plays at home tomorrow at 7 p.m. against Beloit College, then 4 p.m. on Saturday against Lawrence College. They are beginning to roll, and any added wind may just cause a horrible wild Fire.