The Webster Gorloks weren’t about to let the Washington University Bears beat them again.
Early in the 2018-19 season, the Webster Gorloks men’s basketball team was 2-23 all-time against the Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) Bears. On Nov. 14, 2018, the Bears expected to win their 24th game against Webster and their seventh straight. Webster had other plans.
In the 2017-18 campaign, the Gorloks didn’t fare as well as they had wanted to. They posted a 13-12 record and missed the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) playoffs.
However, 2018-19 was looking to be a fresh start for Webster. They had a group of players and coaches ready to return the team to form: A core of scoring guards Josh Johnson and Rodson Etienne, powerful forwards Enrique Tankins and Nigel Wilcox and fiery head coach Chris Bunch. After a win to start the season at Illinois College and a loss at Division II University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), the Gorloks hosted WashU in a cross-town showdown. Guard Aron Hopp said the loss to UMSL was a turning point for the Gorloks.
“We only lost [to UMSL] by 5 points,” Hopp said. “[Playing well against UMSL] gave us a huge boost of confidence, especially going into the WashU game. Coach Bunch dissected the game through film sessions, and we responded very well in practice and prepped for the biggest game on the schedule. Our goal was to win every four minutes. Having that mindset against WashU would allow us to slow the game down and put ourselves in a winning position.”
Hopp, Johnson, Etienne, Tankins and Wilcox, started for Webster, and Grant Gymnasium was packed with fans for the home opener. Wilcox said the atmosphere before tipoff was electric.
“[It was] the most exciting game I ever played in,” Wilcox said. “It was special, we needed to win for those who’d never beaten WashU. We were amped up and locked in.”
At 7 p.m., Webster won the tipoff and the game got underway. The first half of action was very even, with both teams shooting around 47% from the field. Both made four 3-pointers each, but WashU wasn’t as accurate as the Gorloks, going 4-11 to Webster’s 4-7. Conversely, the Bears rebounded better, collecting 20 to Webster’s 13. Johnson collected eight points to lead Webster in the first half while guard Jack Nolan for the Bears had 10. Heading to halftime, WashU led 38-34.
Hopp said Johnson and guard Blake Ferrell were “dripping” with confidence in the locker room at halftime, and their attitude spread to the other Gorlok players as Coach Bunch readied them for the second half.
The final 20 minutes were as competitive as the first 20, with more back-and-forth. Webster, down by six, went on an eight-point run to take a two-point lead. Elijah Macias tied the game with a 3-pointer. Then, Tankins gave Webster the lead with a layup. Wilcox snagged five rebounds and made two crucial blocks and was key to a Webster defense that held WashU to 9-27 shooting and 0-7 on three-pointers.
“We did a great job of defending against WashU’s guards,” Wilcox said. “They were bigger than us, so it was going to be a tough battle to stop them. I knew I had to step up my rebounding for us to win.”
With 6:41 to go, Johnson pulled up and nailed a three-pointer off a defensive rebound by Etienne to take the lead again 58-55. WashU made Webster sweat, but the Gorloks would hold their lead. Hopp said the game was essentially over once Johnson made the basket.
“Josh was an absolute killer throughout and especially in crunch time,” Hopp said. “You could put the ball in his hands during pivotal moments and he was going to get a bucket. The three he hit eliminated any thought of us losing. He’s probably the most clutch player I’ve ever played with.”
Etienne would slam a massive dunk to solidify the victory, and the final buzzer sounded with Webster winning 72-64. Johnson finished with 20 points, Wilcox with 10 rebounds and Etienne was 7-8 from the field.
It was only Webster’s third win against WashU in history and the first since January 2011. Hopp said the victory was important for the team.
“We felt like we could play with absolutely anybody,” Hopp said. “Beating WashU showed everyone we weren’t a team they could look past. We felt like we were the top dogs in the SLIAC and the Midwest.”
Webster would win the SLIAC regular season championship with a 20-7 record and would finish runner-ups in the SLIAC tournament to Eureka College. A season later, the Gorloks’ same core of players would capture Webster men’s basketball’s 10th regular season conference championship and third SLIAC tournament crown.