“It was a game with huge implications,” Watson said. “You have to beat the lower-tier teams to be in the NCAA tournament at this time of year. I was proud the way our guys took this game and took every possession seriously.”
Before McKendree (7-20, 1-16 GLVC) could hit their first field goal, the Bearcats were down 14-0 to the Eagles, and things didn’t get any easier for the first-year GLVC member.
“Defensively, we had gotten out of sorts,” Watson said. “Today we really played compact defense, really great help side defense, and we never let them get into a rhythm.”
USI was led offensively by junior forward Orlando Rutledge, who scored a new career-high 29 points with just 22 minutes on the floor, and senior forward Keith DeWitt, who added 22 points and 13 rebounds. DeWitt was only three assists away from his first collegiate career triple-double.
The Eagles got the ball to DeWitt consistently, and with McKendree forced to double team the USI forward, it created open shots for Rutledge and foul trouble for the Bearcats’ big men in the paint.
“I give a lot of credit to (Wischmeier and DeWitt),” Rutledge said. “Those two guys can draw double teams and that always leaves me open. I think we came with the right mindset.”
Watson said the key for USI was learning from past mistakes made earlier in the week with the Eagles’ 73-62 loss at No. 15 Bellarmine, with the primary focus coming on the defensive end.
“I thought everything we tried to do that we talked about in the locker room before the game (and) really tried to execute, we were really successful at,” he said.
While the Eagles were dominant in all statistical categories, DeWitt says games like this help reaffirm their team beliefs.
“I think we see how dominant we can be and that’s the main thing,” he said.
USI will close out the regular season Thursday at the PAC against border rival Kentucky Wesleyan, a 7:30 tip, before beginning the GLVC tournament on Sunday.
Thursday’s game will be the final game between KWC and USI as conference rivals with the Panthers moving to the newly created Great Midwest Athletic Conference beginning next season. The Eagles won their final game at the Owensboro Sportscenter last month, beating KWC 72-53.