VIDEO: Bods kick Mules, barely beat Bearcats

Rob Burkett / Washburn Review

If there was any doubt as to the value of junior guard Will McNeill to the fate of Washburn’s season, this was dispelled by the last two home games.

Wednesday, the Ichabods took on the University of Central Missouri. Washburn had previously traveled to Warrensburg, Mo., and defeated the Mules on New Year’s Eve, 75-67. Coming into the midweek matchup, the Ichabods had won six of their last seven games. The previous weekend game against Fort Hays State University, McNeill had gone for 26 points en route to a hard fought win. This game, however, McNeill would have to take his game to another level.

With an offense that featured three players ranked in the top 25 in scoring, UCM would prove a pesky opponent, keeping the lead razor thin in the first half despite trailing the entire game. The Mules were twice able to cut the lead to just one point in the first half. Despite their efforts, Washburn had an answer at every turn: Will McNeill. Scoring 13 points in the first half, McNeill was just getting started.

In the second half, Washburn turned up the defensive intensity, forcing eight more turnovers. UCM finished the game with 20 turnovers overall.

While content to take the open shot in the first half, McNeill changed up his plan of attack, taking the fight to the Mules doorstep. As a result, the speedy guard was able to get to the free-throw line, hitting 11-for-12 in the second half and finishing 16-for-18 from the charity stripe.

“Will shot a ton of free throws, but scored from different spots and was on every board,” said Washburn Head Coach Bob Chipman.

 When the final buzzer sounded, McNeill’s career-high 35 points led the Ichabods to a 78-68 win. The game was the fourth time up to that point that Washburn had taken down a top 25 team this season.

If Wednesday was a high for the team, then Saturday could be called a “cardiac special” as the Ichabods managed to escape with a win against the Southwest Baptist University Bearcats. McNeill, coming off a blazing hot game, took a step back offensively. With tight officiating throughout the contest, McNeill was never able to get into the flow of the game. Shooting just 1-for-2 in the first half and 4-for-8 in the game overall, the team leader finished the game with 17 points.

With their leading scorer out of sorts, the team turned to junior guard Martin Mitchell. Mitchell came out hot in the game, shooting 2-for-3 from three-point range, while racking up 12 points to lead the team in the first half.

Combined with a defensive effort that forced 11 first-half turnovers, Washburn put in a more ensemble performance. Besides McNeill and Mitchell, three other players finished the first period with four points or more.

In the beginning of the second half, the most often heard noise was the shrill call of the officials’ whistle as seven fouls were drawn in the first two minutes of the game. As a result, McNeill spent time riding the pine while other players were called upon to step up. Sophomore guard Jeff Reid answered the bell, scoring eight of his 13 points in the second half. Having just recently emerged into the starting lineup, Reid finished the second-consecutive game in double digits, providing the Ichabods with the relief they needed.

Despite being in foul trouble, McNeill managed to put together an 11-point half. Unlike the previous game against UCM, McNeill’s attacking style in the second period would come back to haunt the Ichabods as he fouled out with 2:07 left to go in the contest. With an eight-point lead, Washburn felt comfortable right up to the point where the team leading scorer went out.

“I think the game could have been over on that possession, but that let them get their head up,” said Chipman. “The guy we want to have the ball in his hands and shooting free throws is out. Our best defender is out.”

SBU managed to close the lead to a single possession with less than a minute to go. Washburn held on, however, as the Bearcats got the shot they wanted, but were unable to hit a three-point shot on the wing from forward Kyle Sloan.

With the win, Washburn moves to 18-6 overall and 12-4 in the MIAA. Washburn, second in the conference standings, stays in position just one game behind Northwest Missouri State University for the conference lead.

Next up for Washburn is a Missouri Southern State University team that came to Lee Arena on Jan. 7 when the Ichabods dismantled the Lions in a 67-49 win.

MSSU won four of their last five games at home. With a conference-leading offense averaging 81.5 points per game, Washburn will look to match up their conference-leading scoring defense against the Lion attack.

Led by 6-foot-11 senior center Keane Thomann, who averages an MIAA-high 21.6 points per game, the Ichabods will face one of the toughest interior matchups of the season thus far. Thomann is coming off a 28-point, 14-rebound night against Emporia State University on Saturday.

Tipoff is set for 7:30 tonight in Joplin, Mo.