For weeks, Knox College men’s basketball head coach Rob Purlee has said he believes his team can compete with, if not beat, any team the Midwest Conference throws at them.
Last Friday night, his Prairie Fire proved him correct on the former assertion, when junior Tanner Carlson notched a triple-double, and nearly did so on the latter.
The Prairie Fire took the MWC’s then-top-ranked team, Lawrence University, to two overtimes before finally falling, 89-86, in Appleton, Wis. The loss dropped the Prairie Fire to a 1-14 (0-10 MWC) mark, while Lawrence moved to 8-6 (7-2 MWC) on the season.
“Neither team played well in the first half,” Purlee said, “but both teams played great in the second half.”
The game was as evenly matched as one might ever see—Lawrence and Knox were tied at halftime (26), after regulation (74), and following the first overtime (82), before the Vikings won in the second overtime, 7-4.
“We made a lot of plays down the stretch; we just didn’t make enough,” Purlee said. “Whenever we made a big play, they made one too.”
The offensive star of the game was without a doubt Carlson, who posted a triple-double for the Fire, finishing with 11 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds. Joining Carlson in double-figures for the Prairie Fire were juniors Ben Wetherbee (19 points) and Joe Kozak (15 points) and freshman David Jones, who had a double-double with 23 points and 11 rebounds.
The Vikings had all five starters in double-figures scoring.
“The Lawrence game will haunt me for life,” Purlee said. “I will never understand why or how so many bad things happened…I told the guys after the game that if we had been able to pull the game out, we would have won the game three times. In reality, we won the game in regulation and in overtime,” but missed free throws and missed opportunities kept Knox from winning the game.
Though, admittedly, he has lost sleep over the loss, Purlee still was able to find some positives.
“We had just nine turnovers in 50 minutes of basketball. David Jones—23 and 11? Look at the second half that Tanner [Carlson], Ben [Wetherbee] and David [Jones] had. David played like a man in that second half.”
Threes tell the story
After the heartbreak in Appleton, the Prairie Fire moved on to Beloit, Wis. for an afternoon matchup against the Buccaneers. Knox came looking to avenge last week’s rout by Beloit at Memorial Gymnasium, but less than 24 hours after a two-overtime loss, Knox’s physical endurance was a question mark. However, they battled during the game—the Prairie Fire trailed by just two at intermission—but ultimately lost, 75-67.
“We went 2-14 from the three-point line, and they were 8-16,” Purlee said. “That’s really the only difference. We had some great looks that didn’t go down. The first 12 possessions of the second half, we had five turnovers and went 1-7 from the field, and that got us out of it pretty quickly. We were able to get back in it, but the first part of the second half really hurt us.”
Knox again rode on the back of its point guard Carlson, who scored 28 points in a losing effort. Kozak was second-leading scorer for the Fire with eight.
Most notable of Carlson’s Saturday performance was his ability to get to the basket and draw fouls to get to the line. The junior attempted 18 free throws during the game, connecting on 16.
The loss to the Buccaneers drops Knox to 1-15 (0-11 MWC) on the year. Beloit moves to 6-9 (5-5 MWC).
Carlson gathers honors
For his strong performances for the weekend, Carlson, a junior from Annawan, Ill., earned two honors. The point guard was named Prairie Fire Performer of the Week before also being named as the Midwest Conference Player of the Week for men’s basketball.
Carlson’s triple-double Friday evening prior, to a career-high 28-point scoring effort Saturday night sealed the awards. In addition to his back-to-back double-digit scoring performances, Carlson proved himself a clutch scorer, hitting a three with 11 seconds left in regulation to send Friday’s matchup into overtime.
His 14 assists Friday night tied for second all-time for assists in a game by a Knox men’s basketball player. Carlson leads the Prairie Fire in assists, assists per game (third in MWC), minutes played and three-point percentage. He ranks third on his team in scoring average, notching 11.4 per game.
Carlson’s honor marked the first time a Knox men’s basketball player was named MWC Player of the Week in nearly three years. Grant Kluge earned the honor in February 2008.
“Tanner is the closest thing we have to someone who sees the game like a coach does,” Purlee said. “He has ‘it.’ He guts it out, and sometimes it’s almost like he wills the ball in the basket.”
Purlee sees Carlson as someone who fit the mold perfectly for his vision of Knox basketball.
“My first year,” Purlee said, “I told the team that we were going to get a point guard and a big guy, and then we’d come out and win the whole damn thing. In Tanner, we’ve got our point guard, and we’ve got two young big guys [Jones and sophomore Lukas Shaw], so we’ve got the pieces we want. It’s just taken us a little longer to get to that ultimate goal.”
Knox returns to action at home this Saturday when the Blueboys of Illinois College (10-5, 6-4 MWC) come to town. IC also fell victim to a two-overtime defeat to 15th-ranked St. Norbert College last Saturday night. This will mark the first matchup of the year for the two teams. Tip-off time is 7 p.m.
“IC is loaded with talent—we’ll have to play really well, and we’ll have our hands full,” Purlee said.
Knox’s head coach has also instilled a new motto into his team as it continues looking forward.
“Don’t let what we haven’t done,” Purlee told his team, “interfere with what we still can do.”