A piano in their pockets.
That’s how Knox head coach Rob Purlee described the way in which his team has been forced to play following a losing streak that has now stretched to 20 games.
After losses 19, 20 and now 21 in a row, that piano has gotten even heavier.
The Prairie Fire dropped a Feb. 9 matchup to Illinois College, 75-62, before hosting Grinnell College in a Monday night rescheduled game on Valentine’s Day. The Pioneers took the contest, 90-76. The two losses drop the Fire to 1-20 on the year, with a record of 0-16 in Midwest Conference play.
In the game against the Blueboys, Illinois College came out hot from the opening tip, hitting five three-pointers in the first five minutes of the game. Nine minutes into the game, the Blueboys’ lead had increased to 12, and the Prairie Fire struggled to inch closer to a talented Blueboys club.
“For the first six minutes, they shot the lights out,” Purlee said. “They got off to a good start, and we were forced to play catch-up the entire night. From that point, they just kept us at arm’s length.”
Illinois College held a 47-31 advantage at intermission, and the lead grew to as much as 20 in the second half.
Junior Ben Wetherbee led the Prairie Fire in scoring with 23 points, including a 7-for-11 effort from behind the arc. Senior Matt Goedeke added 12 points and six rebounds.
When the Pioneers of Grinnell came to town on Valentine’s Day boasting a seven-game winning streak and one of the top scoring offenses in the nation, the Prairie Fire needed a perfect effort on both ends of the court.
For a while they got it. Knox came out exceptionally strong in the early part of the game, building an 18-point advantage with 8 minutes remaining in the half, aided in part by unusually poor shooting from Grinnell – at the time, just 16 percent from the field. However, Grinnell’s perimeter game caught fire toward the end of the half, and the Pioneers were able to close the gap to two points by halftime, 38-36.
However, Grinnell showed strong resiliency in opening the second half – at one point connecting on seven straight shots from the field, including five three-pointers. From there, the Pioneers never looked back, building their lead to as much as 17 before finally taking the game by a 90-76 final score.
“We expended a bunch of energy early,” Purlee said. “And quite honestly, around the five-minute mark [in the first half], I think we ran out of gas.”
And the attitude both teams had while riding their respective streaks did not help much, either.
“Now they’ve won eight in a row,” Purlee said, “and when you’re on a streak like they’re on, negative thoughts don’t enter your mind. When you’re on a streak like we’re on, positive thoughts don’t enter your mind.”
Sophomore post Lukas Shaw led the team in scoring with 21 points and 11 rebounds in just 15 minutes on the floor. Wetherbee added 15 points, and junior Joe Kozak rounded out the Prairie Fire double-figures scorers with 10 points. The Prairie Fire had 27 turnovers, compared with just 14 for the Pioneers.
On Wednesday night, in the final home game of the year, Knox hosted Lake Forest for its annual Senior Night festivities. Four seniors, Goedeke, Courtney Jude, Peter Cain, and Roger Ortiz, played in their final home game as members of the Prairie Fire.
For Purlee, Senior Night brought mixed emotions.
“First off, it saddens me that those four are leaving [at the end of the season],” Purlee said. All four of them – they’re seriously good dudes. But I’m also hopeful, both hopeful for the future and hopeful that, maybe tonight, the ball will bounce our way and we can get into the win column.
“But also, it brings me a great sense of satisfaction to see that they’re at the end of the road, and they’ve made it – they’re still standing – especially after all that we’ve been through this season.”
Unfortunately for Knox and its four seniors, for the 21st consecutive game, Knox’s men’s basketball team lost. And yet again, it was heartbreaking.
Lake Forest took the Prairie Fire down 64-63 late Wednesday night on a tip-in by Nate Bateman with 2.1 seconds left. Junior Tanner Carlson led Knox (1-21, 0-17 MWC) with 19 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. All of Carlson’s points came in the second half.
Knox struggled in the first half, committing 12 turnovers. But in the second half, the Prairie Fire stormed back, shooting 55 percent from the floor, 4-6 from three-point land. Senior Peter Cain sparked Knox with five points and a steal in ten minutes of play in the second half.
The two teams went back and forth in the final minute. The Foresters’ (12-10, 10-7 MWC) Jeff Beck hit a go-ahead jumper with 17 seconds remaining before Carlson sprinted down the floor and hit a short jumper to put Knox up by one.
A controversial foul call on sophomore Doug Lillibridge—who appeared to have forced a jump ball—then sent Beck to the free throw line with four seconds left. Beck missed the front end of the one and one, setting up Bateman for the tip-in.
For Knox, the loss is just another chapter of what Purlee mentioned as “everything we’ve been through this season.”
A season that Purlee can only sum up by saying, “If it could’ve gone wrong, it went wrong.”