2018 has already been filled with ups and downs so far for the men’s basketball team.
The first game of the new year for the Pilots was on January 3rd against Marian University, a team who came into the game with a 1-3 Crossroads League record. The Pilots trailed at one point in the game by as many as 11 points, being down 58-47 with 16:23 left to go in the game. To their luck, the Pilots posted a 9-0 run that helped them regain the lead with 8:28 left to go.
It all came down to Marian’s Sterling Brown who was put at the free throw line with 6.7 seconds remaining in regulation. The Marian Knights were up 89-87 at that point, so they had a chance to take the lead with Brown’s free throws. To their misfortune, Brown missed both free throws, giving the Pilots new life. Pilot guard Trey’von Covington danced down the court to lay up a shot to the tie the game with 2.2 seconds left and the Knights responded with a heave across the court to win, but failed.
In overtime, Sterling Brown came in clutch for the Knights by hitting a three pointer to tie the game at 102. With 13 seconds remaining, the Pilots had a chance to relieve themselves from a scare at home. The ball was passed to Bethel’s Tanner Sheppard, who stood from beyond the arc, and he launched a deep three-point attempt that sailed in to seal the game, 105-102. The home winning streak at Mike Lightfoot court was preserved and extended to 26 games.
However, the January 6th game against NAIA 4th ranked Indiana Wesleyan would bring a different storyline.
Pilots posted one their worst statistical games this season. They had a season low from the beyond the arc shooting 6 for 20, only 30 percent. The game would also be a first in the rebound category, with the Pilots being outrebounded for the first time this season. The Pilots would end up losing to the Wildcats in a blowout, 91-70. The loss broke the 26-game winning streak at home dating back to February 13, 2016.
“We played them three times last year. We beat them the last three times we played them and they came into our place losing three in a row,” Coach Lightfoot noted in an interview with BSN at the end of the week, “Indiana Wesleyan hasn’t lost three in a row since 2008, so for us, we knew they would come in hungry and play with some urgency. I think our guys didn’t really understand the urgency they were going to play with. So, they came in and punched us in the mouth and we had to take it on the chin there a little bit and move on. It was one of those games where Indiana Wesleyan did everything we planned for, from the scout to our preparation. Everything was great until we got to the point where we had to go out there during game time and we didn’t have a chance to hit back. The biggest thing was that we came into that game with a really emotional win against Marian, winning on a last second shot, overtime win, coming from behind on a Wednesday. It’s a quick turnaround. I think in our league, we can’t celebrate success so long. You have to kind of move onto the next game.”
If anyone wondered how the Pilots would respond following their disappointing loss, the perfect answer came their next game on January 9th at 13th ranked Spring Arbor.
“It think (the Indiana Wesleyan game) really humbled us. Our preparation and our attention to detail has to be so spot on in what we do,” Lightfoot said of his team’s response to the loss, “I think our team handled it pretty well. They don’t like losing…”
The game was a low-scoring affair the whole way through, due in part to the tremendous defensive effort by both squads. The Pilots were outrebounded for the second time this season, but were able to pull off the upset thanks to Gage Ott’s double-double and Ryan Lutz’s clutch 15-foot shot with 11 seconds remaining. The final score was 63-62.
Was there any game plan change that helped the Pilots bounce back against Spring Arbor?
“A little bit strategically. We went back to the basics,” Lightfoot noted, “I think we got too focused on what other people do and how to take people out of their reactions rather than getting really, really good at what we do. We challenged them the week after the Indiana Wesleyan game that we were going to win a game in the 60’s.”
The Pilots had given up an average of 89 points per conference game and 75 points per game overall coming into the Spring Arbor match-up, so Coach Lightfoot made sure his players got back to basics as he mentioned on the defensive side of the ball.
The Pilots were supposed to play Mt. Vernon Nazarene (Ohio) this past Saturday, January 13th, but plans were canceled due weather conditions. Instead, the men’s team will play at Taylor University tomorrow and will make up their Mt. Vernon matchup this Thursday. The Pilots have also gone up in the NAIA Top 25 Coaches’ Poll from 14th to 11th.