Eagles get first round bye after win over KWC

Zane Clodfelter

With No. 19 USI down 15-8 to rival Kentucky Wesleyan, the PAC was subdued – maybe even more so than anticipated.

That mood changed as soon as junior forward Taylor Wischmeier hit a jumper that sent the crowd of 2,400 into a frenzy. The Eagles (20-6, 13-5 GLVC) rode the momentum from the near-capacity crowd to a 71-55 win over KWC (19-7, 11-7 GLVC) in the final game of the “Battle for the Bridge” series.

“That’s what we needed – it completely changed the game,” said Rodney Watson, men’s basketball head coach. “I’ve never seen a student crowd change a game like they did tonight. It changed the game with one basket.”

The USI student section planned a white out along with a theme called “silent night,” which is based on a tradition at Taylor University (IN) in which students remain quiet until their team scores its tenth point, at which point fans respond by cheering loudly.

Following the tenth point, the Eagles used a 16-4 run capped by a Travis Jones three-pointer to take control of the game, forcing the Panthers to use two timeouts within four minutes.

“It was so cool for (Jones) to come in that one spot and get that basket,” Watson said. “It was a huge play and really frustrated Kentucky Wesleyan.”

The Eagles were led offensively by juniors Orlando Rutledge, who tallied 23 points and 11 rebounds, and Lawrence Thomas, who fell one rebound shy of a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds.

“We wanted to get this win for all our seniors,” Rutledge said. “This is their last home game and we wanted to go out on a good note. It’s a good feeling, beating them on our home court.”

Despite the offensive scoring runs, Rutledge was most impressed by his teammates ability to guard the Panthers.

“That’s what we hang our hat on – our defense,” he added. “We did a good job only limiting them to 55 points.”

Frustration boiled over for the Panthers in the second half, when  Panthers guard Rico Ferguson and Head Coach Todd Lee were given technical fouls after KWC had pulled to within 14 points at 52-38. That would be as close as the Panthers would get to USI, as the Eagles coasted to the program’s 19th 20-win season in the last 20 years while clinching a bye in next week’s GLVC tournament.

For senior Kenyon Smith, the goal now is to extend the season and his collegiate career.

“A first round bye gives us a chance to rest up and prepare for our next opponent and we’ll be ready for that,” Smith said.

With the win, the Eagles earned the third seed in next weekend’s tournament, which will be played in Evansville at the newly built Ford Center. It marks the first time the GLVC tournament will be played in Evansville since Roberts Stadium hosted the event from 1999-2007.

USI will play the winner between University of Illinois-Springfield and Bellarmine at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.