On Saturday, Jan. 31, the Knox Prairie Fire entered Alex Gym hoping to get revenge on a Vikings’ team who defeated them by 22 points just one week earlier. The home defeat dropped Knox to 2-9 in conference, preventing a tie with Lawrence in the Midwest Conference standings.
The second matchup yielded similar results. Lawrence won 76-60 behind a complete team scoring effort, and quickly adapted to Knox’s man-to-man defense.
The Vikings saw a 2-3 zone from Knox the first time both teams met, but Knox came out running man-to-man. Mitch Willer and his team, however, anticipated this change. “I think we did expect that [man-to-man]. We handled their zone extremely well the last time we played, getting a ton of easy points in the lane,” said Willer.
Knox ended up sticking with man-to-man the entire game, and Lawrence had difficulties finding an offensive rhythm early on. Joel DePagter went to a variety of role players—including sophomores Connor Weas and Peter Winslow—with 13:40 remaining in the first half in an attempt to find a groove.
Eventually, Lawrence began to exploit the middle of Knox’s defense. Senior forward Andrew Borresen crashed the boards and tipped in a Jeremy Stephani shot to give Lawrence a 16-10 advantage at the 10:44 mark.
The run would continue as senior guard Ryan DePouw sliced and diced through the lane for two straight layups, igniting the home crowd.
A run-and-gun game ensued for the remainder of the first half. Lawrence played inspired team basketball, culminating in Jamie Nikitas taking it the length of the court to put the Vikings up 29-19 with 4:48.
Knox would go on a small run led by sophomore point guard Deandre Weathersby to end the half, as the Vikings’ allowed many open looks from the perimeter. Despite these breakdowns, Lawrence led 34-26 at halftime.
The Vikings went on to open up the lead in the second half behind excellent passing. DePouw contributed a team-high five assists in the game, three coming between the 11:29 and 10:15 mark of the second half.
“Our ball movement looked a lot better in the second half, and that’s when we were really able to pull away and build the lead,” commented Willer. “Once we discouraged them from taking it inside and amped up the pressure on the perimeter, it was hard for them to get any clear looks with all of us playing with such high energy and intensity.”
Lawrence, however, seemed a bit too comfortable with their 56-37 lead at the 10:15 mark. The Vikings continued to play run-and-gun with a sizeable lead, which led to several turnovers. This allowed Knox to cut the score to 62-49 on senior Mitch Murphy’s three-pointer with 7:44 left.
The Vikings would slow down their frantic pace and run an efficient offense the rest of the way. Lawrence outscored Knox 14-11 in the final 7:44, and freshmen Evan McLaughlin, Kalind Nash, Ben Peterson and Eric Weiss all received minutes to the crowd’s liking.
This victory was the definition of a team-effort the Vikings will need in their final five conference games. Three games out of the MWC tournament, the Vikings need to win and get help from lower-ranked conference opponents.
Lawrence traveled to ninth-ranked St. Norbert College (17-1, 13-0 MWC) on Wednesday, Feb. 4 and return home on Saturday, Feb. 7 to take on Illinois College (4-14, 3-10 MWC).
If Lawrence pulls off the upset on Wednesday, a very winnable game against Illinois College could put the Vikings in the thick of the conference race.
Willer knows his team will need to play their heart out. “That great feeling of going out there, playing as hard as possible and getting a win is definitely a major takeaway for us and something we need to remember as we try to close this season out as strongly as possible.”