Victims of a 19-5 run in the last 5:20 of the game, the Knox College men’s basketball team lost a 57-54 heartbreaker to the Lake Forest Foresters (10-1, 6-0 MWC) on Tuesday Jan. 10. Knox was looking to hand Lake Forest their first conference loss of the season, but the Foresters denied Prairie Fire of their third consecutive conference triumph.
It was clear the game would be a defensive battle early on, as Knox focused their attention on stopping Lake Forest’s best player center Travis Clark. Clark, the MWC’s top rebounder and fifth leading scorer, consistently played with two if not three Knox players surrounding him.
“The game plan was to keep the ball out of his hands and if he got it make him get rid of it quick,” junior forward Lukas Shaw said. “On most of the plays it was my job to keep him away from the basket, and then let other guys come to help.”
The pressure forced Clark to pass out of the lane on most occasions and the Foresters settled for long-range shots for most of the first half. Lake Forest shot 14 three balls in the first half, making just two, and Knox took advantage of the poor shooting to take a 31-29 lead into the half.
Knox continued to play strong defensive well into the second half, holding Lake Forest to just three made field goals in the first 15 minutes of the second frame. But turnovers and missed free throws would ultimately doom the Prairie Fire.
In the last five minutes Knox turned the ball over four times and made just three of nine baskets at the charity stripe giving Lake Forest an opportunity to get back in the game. They did so by connecting on four straight threes, the last of which gave the Foresters a 55-53 lead with 26 seconds remaining.
The game’s final momentums would contain a flurry of action. With four seconds left senior Ben Wetherbee had a chance to tie the game with a free throw, but the ball clanked off the back of the rim.
After a Knox foul and a pair of Lake Forest free throws, senior Tanner Carlson drove up the left side of the court in attempt to get the winning shot off. Despite contact with another player, the official kept his whistle silent on the play, and the ball went out of bounds to the Foresters.
It was only with another pair of free throws that Lake Forest was finally able to seal the win.
“When you shoot 50 percent from the field at home, and have twice as many free throws as the other team, you expect to win, just disappointing,” head coach Rob Purlee said of the loss.
Senior Joe Kozak was equally disappointed with the result.
“There is no denying the free throws killed us. We also had some lapses on defense,” he said.
Kozak and Shaw led the Prairie Fire (3-9, 2-5 MWC) with 12 and 11 points respectively, while Carlson contributed seven assists. Carlson is now second in the conference with six assists per game.
Home woes, road wins
The defeat left Knox with a 1-6 home record, all six losses coming against MWC opponents.
“[We’ve] lost a little bit of home court advantage,” Carlson said. “But we seem to play just as well on the road as we do at home so I think with a veteran led team we have a very good shot at getting a couple of those early losses erased by winning on the road.”
When Carlson says the team is playing just as well on the road, he means it. With a win over rival Monmouth last Saturday, Knox extended its road conference win streak to three games.
But while Purlee is also encouraged by the streak, he also believes that “to get back into the [conference tournament] race we’re going to need a more this season.”
Shaw improving, freshmen showing grit
With the 11 points against Lake Forest, Shaw notched his eighth double-digit point performance of the season, and has averaged nearly five more points per game this year in comparison to last season.
“I’ve really focused on improving my play around the rim,” Shaw said.
In addition to Shaw, a couple of Knox freshmen have also been solid for the Prairie Fire. Armand Strickland and Mitch Murphy have each contributed as role players, with their peak performance coming against Monmouth. Against the Fighting Scots the duo combined for 27 points to help lead Knox to a 76-66 victory.
“The kids were great,” Purlee said. “They really carried us in the first half [in Monmouth], and it will be fun to see what else they can give us.”