Leathernecks open season with second-half rally, down-to-the-wire victory over Redbirds


Western Illinois University guard Trenton Massner, right, led the Leathernecks to a 71-68 victory over Illinois State University in Monday's season opener at Redbird Arena in Normal, Ill. | Photo courtesy WIU athletics

NORMAL, Ill. — Down, but never out.

That’s a mantra that could carry the Western Illinois University men’s basketball team a long way.

It lifted the Leathernecks to a season-opening victory Monday night.

Trailing by as many as 13 points early in the second half, WIU went on a 16-2 run to get back in the game and outlasted Illinois State University down the stretch to earn a 71-68 victory at Redbird Arena.

“There’s so many things that I can point to, obviously the team stepped up when we got a little undisciplined on some things,” WIU coach Rob Jeter said. “But we learned lessons as the game was played, multiple people stepped up.”

ISU led 40-33 at halftime after the Redbirds’ Darius Burford hit a 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer. The lead ballooned to 46-33 in the first 78 seconds of the second half, but Quinlan Bennett scored three times in the paint as the Leathernecks pulled within 48-46. Trenton Massner’s jumper with 14:24 to play gave WIU a 49-48 lead.

From there, it turned into a dogfight.

“I think we kept our poise when the momentum was not on our side,” Jeter said. “During that stretch, we were able to get stops. That’s what we’re trying to get this team to understand. Offensively, we’re going to have some droughts, but the defense can help us. We did a phenomenal job during that stretch to limit them to two points.”

Neither team led by more than four points the remainder of the game, with Illinois State going ahead 68-66 on Kendall Lewis’ jumper with 1:16 to play.

A free throw by WIU’s Vuk Stevanic cut the deficit in half, and Alec Rosner’s 3-pointer with 30 seconds remaining gave the Leathernecks the lead for good.

Stevanic split a pair of free throws with five seconds to play, and Lewis missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Massner led the way offensively for the Leathernecks, finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. It is the first triple-double for the program since Brandon Gilbeck turned the feat in 2018.

“That’s incredible. A triple-double is rare,” Jeter said. “We’re going to have to reward him, let him wear a headband, that deserves that. We ask a lot of him and he stepped up. I’m proud of how we responded to get off the deck.”

Rosner finished with a game-high 25 points in his WIU debut.

WIU returns to the court at 6 p.m. Wednesday with the home opener against Rockford at Western Hall before hitting the road for games at DePaul on Friday and Central Florida next Monday.

“We have to get better each game. For these 40 minutes we got tougher. Now we go back and watch our mistakes,” Jeter said. “We made some mental ones. We clean those up, we become a tighter group and get a little better each game, we get a little better each day and we’ll be fine.”

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