For the first time this season, the Webster University men’s basketball team does not hold at least a share of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference lead. A 65-61 loss at Spalding University on Feb. 11 has the second-place Gorloks looking up in the standings at Eureka College.
The four-point loss was Webster’s third in its last four games. The Gorloks have hit a snag after beginning SLIAC play with nine consecutive wins. Webster (10-12 overall, 10-3 SLIAC) has three regular-season games remaining while Eureka (15-8, 11-3) has two.
The Gorloks are still in the mix for the conference regular-season championship and the right to host the SLIAC tournament, though several tiebreakers — if necessary — are still to be decided. The top four regular-season finishers qualify for the tournament, which begins on Feb. 23.
Webster struggled with Spalding’s interior strength and size. The Golden Eagles, who boast five players 6-foot-5-inches and taller, outrebounded Webster 40-25. Spalding’s Jametrius Brasher (6’6”) and Montray Robertson (6’7”) pulled down eight and seven rebounds, respectively.
“All five players on the court need to crash the boards, offensively and defensively,” freshman guard Ahmad Smith said. “It’s kind of hard when your biggest player is 6’5”. We just lack a lot of height, to be honest. It was hard going against those bigger, stronger teams.”
As a team, the Golden Eagles outrebound SLIAC opponents by a margin of 12.4 boards per game. The next closest team on that list is Eureka, which outrebounds conference opponents by only 3.0 rebounds per game.
“They have been, the last two or three years, by far the best rebounding team in the league,” Webster coach Chris Bunch said. “We knew going in that we were going to have to do a good job boxing out. I’m sure we missed some box outs. There were times that we did box out, and they still got rebounds. It’s a combination of being better technique-wise and then just maybe being a little tougher.
“They’re just a very big team — that’s the kind of team that probably gives us the most problems. You get people to miss shots, but if you can’t get rebounds, the second and third shots are the ones you always foul somebody on, or they grab a rebound and flip it to somebody who’s open because you’re not covering him. Those are the shots that hurt you the worst.”
The first half was tightly played, as neither team led by more than five points. There were five lead changes and four ties, as Spalding took a 32-28 edge into halftime.
With 9 minutes, 31 seconds to play in the second half and Spalding up 48-43, the Golden Eagles went on an 8-0 run over the next four minutes to put Webster in a big hole. The Gorloks chipped into Spalding’s lead and made it 63-61 with 13 ticks left on a Cody Bradfisch 3-pointer. But two free throws by Brasher sealed Spalding’s seventh win in nine games.
As they have for much of the season, the Gorloks once again struggled from the free-throw line. Webster sunk only 13 of its 26 attempts (50 percent) from the charity stripe, while the Golden Eagles hit 16 of their 23 tries (69.6 percent).
“Why do teams struggle from the free-throw line? If I had an answer for that, I’d probably write a book and be a millionaire,” Bunch said. “It’s just a concentration thing, and like field-goal shooting, sometimes you shoot them and they just bounce around and don’t go in. It’s definitely something we’ve got to continue to work on because that was huge Saturday. You lose by four and miss 13 free throws — that hurts. If we had made more free throws, we could have very easily won the game.”
Webster was led by sophomore forward Stefan Whittingham, who scored 20 points on 7 of 12 shooting and pulled down six rebounds. Sophomore guard Hollis Edwards and junior forward Roman Robinson each had 10 points. The Gorloks shot 44.7 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from the 3-point line.
Next up for Webster is a home game against Greenville College (13-8, 8-5) on Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. The Gorloks travel to MacMurray College (12-10, 9-4) on Feb. 18 before returning to Grant Gymnasium for the regular-season finale against Fontbonne University (4-19, 3-12) on Feb. 21.
Though Bunch and the Gorloks would like to close out the season with three wins and host the SLIAC tournament, history has not always been on the hosting team’s side. Since the SLIAC tournament was reinstated in 2005, only three of the seven host teams have gone on to win the tourney. Of the four times Webster has hosted since ‘05, the Gorloks have won the tournament title just once (2011).
“I’ve always thought it was important. I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” Bunch said. “If you look at our standings, there are six teams within two (and a half) games of each other. Any (team) can catch somebody on a good night and that team had a poor night, then I think anybody can beat anybody. That’s not to say I don’t think we will be able to win out and host it.”