One win to rule them all

After 192 meetings, Washburn’s record against Emporia State stands at 96-96. The tie in the all-time series will be broken at 7:30 tonight, but there is much more at stake when the in-state rivals square off in Emporia.

More importantly, the Hornets and Ichabods are playing for a spot in the postseason, and there’s a chance only the winner will make the MIAA tournament.

ESU (12-13, 8-10 MIAA) holds a half-game lead over WU (14-12, 8-11) for seventh place in the conference standings. Only the top eight teams qualify for a postseason trip to Kansas City, and the loser of tonight’s Turnpike Tussle runs the risk of falling into the dreaded ninth-place slot, behind Northwest Missouri State (12-13, 7-11).

After losing 77-54 last Wednesday at Missouri Southern, the Bods bounced back in a must-win game against Pittsburg State, topping the Gorillas 77-61 on Saturday to keep their postseason hopes alive.

“We had to have that game,” said junior guard William McNeill. “After losing at Missouri Southern, we knew it was a game we had to win if we wanted to keep our season going.”

With their backs against the wall, the Bods built an early lead against the Gorillas (8-17, 2-17) and cruised to a win with 17 points from DeAndre Washington and 15 from McNeill. In a bounce back game against one of the MIAA’s lower-tier teams, WU showed a sense of urgency. However, coach Bob Chipman said that’s nothing new for this year’s Bods.

“We’ve been there for a while now,” said Chipman. “We buried ourselves with a 1-7 conference record when we had Logan (Stutz) and Mo (Colter) out and now that everyone’s back we’ve played pretty well to get back in it. But since that point we’ve always had a sense of urgency knowing we had to win a lot of games to have a chance.”

With wins in seven of their last 11 games, including a 31-point win against ESU in January, the Bods have given themselves more than just a chance and still control their own postseason destiny. Winning tonight extends WU’s season into March. With a loss, Chipman’s squad has to hope NWMSU drops its last two games and stays in ninth place.

For his team to even be in the running for eighth place with teams like ESU, which finished fourth in the conference last year and returned most of its players, Chipman said it shows how deep the MIAA is and how well his young team has played to remain competitive.

“It would mean a lot to beat them twice,” he said. “It shows how good the conference is when a team as talented as Emporia State is battling for their lives. We have guys who are playing in this conference for the first time and we’re still right there battling to prolong our season and win a big game. It would really be a big win for us.”

WU and ESU first met in 1905 and have played at least once a year since 1945. In his 31 years coaching the Bods, Chipman has seen more than enough Turnpike Tussles to put the rivalry in perspective, and he says tonight’s meeting ranks up there with the biggest of all-time.

“Last year for us was really the only other time that I think it’s been as big as this one coming up,” Chipman said. “We met in the MIAA tournament last year but other than that we haven’t met much with the season on the line.”

The Bods won that match up last March despite being swept by the Hornets in the regular season. ESU was favored heading into the first round of the conference tournament, especially after beating WU by 15 the week before. However, the Bods pulled off an 88-82 upset to extend their season into the semifinals, where they pushed top-seeded Central Missouri to overtime before falling 72-69.

Although the all-time series with ESU is tied, it’s games like last year’s MIAA tournament and tonight’s season-deciding showdown that are remembered most in the 105-year rivalry. Just as his team did last year, Chipman is confident this squad, comprised almost entirely of newcomers, is capable of coming out on top in a must-win game.

Besides, it’s not like they haven’t been in this situation before.

“It helps that every game for us has been ‘season-on-the-line’ mode,” Chipman said. “I think we’ve come of age and stuck together. Now if we can win down there, it would be really special to continue our season in Kansas City.”