Anyone who has spent time with me talking Summit League basketball knows that even when Elijah Lufile was playing 8 minutes a game I was trying to say Lufile was going to do big things and be a difference-maker in the Summit League. At least for one night that was proven prophetic. Lufile was dominant down low on the offensive glass and also scoring the basketball. Lufile and the Golden Eagles set the tone with physicality early and never really looked back. The normally hot-shooting Golden Eagles only shot 29% from 3 but used the offensive glass and defensive toughness to keep the Leathernecks at bay. The Golden Eagles finished with 11 offensive rebounds, 6 of those from Lufile to make up for the shooting deficiencies. After never really keeping the game close in the first half, a Trenton Massner 3 with 6:34 remaining pulled the Leathernecks within 3 and it looked like a new ballgame. ORU never looked back as they locked down defensively and used primarily the free throw line to end the game from that point on a 17-8 run.
There was a time last year Lufile thought he may never play basketball again as a heart ailment put his basketball career in jeopardy. As Coach Paul Mills noted “he wasn’t able to play for 20 months” Mills added, “wasn’t allowed to walk on a treadmill, wasn’t allowed to ride a bicycle”. Some of this explains Lufile’s lack of playing time at the beginning of this season. Watching what he has done, is something to marvel considering where things were a year ago. When asked if this means a little more given what he’s gone through Lufile said “This means a lot to me, I’m very thankful, and I give glory to God”. Lufile later added to the importance of being able to make an impact and what it represents “It means so much to me and my family to represent the school, represent my family, my name on the back (of his jersey)”. Well representing and performing was what Lufile did. The senior forward finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. All-Summit guard Max Abmas finished with 22 points and 5 assists and Forward Deshang Weaver finished with 11 points including 3 big 3 point makes in the second half.
It was an up and down year for Western Illinois and this game sort of went the way most of that second half has gone. More downs than ups. Coach Rob Jeter stated he was proud of his players and seemed to indicate that he was feeling okay with the direction the program was going even though the results weren’t what they were hoping for. Jeter felt they battled the same even though the results were different especially in the conference season. Coach Jeter did stay “we played a little individual sometimes”, which seemed like something that could be seen from an outside perspective. Some of that cohesiveness had many excited about the Leathernecks in the non-conference season just didn’t seem the same during conference play. When put into perspective the Western Illinois program is moving in the right direction, however, as Jeter said “we’ve accomplished some things but there’s so much more” and added “that’s not the standard” Trenton Massner led the Leathernecks with 28 points and Tamell Pearson added 14 points and 4 rebounds.
Oral Roberts moves on to play a North Dakota State in one of the most anticipated semi-final nights in recent memory. With South Dakota and South Dakota State meeting in the opener, and Oral Roberts and North Dakota State meeting just a short time after a scrap in Fargo between the two teams. While I expect no repeat of what happened in Fargo, I think there will be plenty of fireworks on the court.