A matchup between the second place Grinnell Pioneers (15-6, 11-3) and the Knox College Prairie Fire (2-19, 2-12) promised to be an offensive showing. Grinnell, under the tutelage of 20-year coach David Arsenault and his patented hyperspeed offense, did all it could to overwhelm the defense of the Prairie Fire, while Knox hoped to simply slow down the sprinting Pioneers and keep the game in reach.
The opening of the game injected some hope into the Fire faithful, as Knox struck quickly to go up four, taking as much time off the clock as possible when bringing up the ball, and pressuring the Grinnell players whenever they could.
“We wanted to play man-to-man defense because we thought that one of our weaknesses defensively is rebounding, because we just don’t have a big monster in the middle,” coach Rob Purlee said. “When we played [at Grinnell], we played zone for 40 minutes and just got wrecked on the glass.”
The lead was short-lived though, as Grinnell’s John Grotberg and David Arsenault Jr. combined to lead their team on a 12 to 2 run, and from there the line changes and dashing men in red were too much for the Prairie Fire. Knox did win the rebound battle Purlee was hoping for, 40 to 33, but it was all for naught.
“If you’d have told me before the game we were going to hold them to 107 points, I would have said great.” Purlee said. “It’s just the other number I’m not happy with, the 74.”
The Pioneers average 117 points a game, a testament to the strength of the Fire defense. The offense though, as it has at times this year, was flagging again. The Fire scored 36 in the first half to Grinnell’s 55, despite shooting 55 percent from the field. The three-point line, the Pioneers land of milk and honey all year, was where they killed Knox, shooting 39 percent as a team going 16-for-41. Knox shot only 14 percent from beyond the arc, making none in the first half on three tries.
Purlee was the first to admit his team’s handling problems, as Knox turned it over 37 times, including 22 robberies by the Pioneers. Grotberg, in addition to his 33 points, recorded a double-double, the other half being steals with 12. Bobby Long was their second leading scorer with 30. Knox’s freshman sniper Ben Wetherbee, just days off one of his best shooting performances against Beloit College with 22 points, was held to only seven points on 3-10 shooting.
“Ben [Wetherbee] goes 0-for-7 from three; we gave him the green light.” Purlee said. “You roll the dice, and we’ve seen nights… he puts up 30.”
Sophomore Matt Goedeke continued to channel the Stone Buddha of San Antonio, with an impressive 23 points and 16 rebounds and some stifling defense inside, while senior Rusty Baker gave 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting. With the transitory nature of the game, Baker was able to throw down two emphatic dunks, including a smooth ally-oop from senior Adam Estergard (six points, seven boards, two assists) that electrified the crowd.
Even with all the electricity and energy, the Pioneer dynamo would not be slowed, and the Fire fell, 107-74, in what devolved into a YMCA-like game by the end. The penultimate game at home for the Prairie Fire, while a loss, was one to be remembered, as Grinnell did not disappoint, and the heart of Knox beat on, no matter the score.