The third meeting of the season between longtime rivals Indiana Wesleyan and Taylor was a knockdown, drag-out battle for all 40 minutes.
The Trojans put together one of their best defensive efforts of the season, holding the high-powered Wildcats to a season-low in points scored. But in the end, an early, second-half flurry by Wildcat star Kyle Mangas, together with a pair of crucial baskets from Mangas and point guard Spencer Piercefield in the final 90 seconds, proved to be the difference, as the Wildcats held on to defeat the Trojans 74-66 in the Crossroads League Tournament Quarterfinals.
“Give Taylor a ton of credit,” IWU Head Coach Greg Tonagel said. “They came ready to play. [Coach] Josh [Andrews] had them ready, and for most of the game, I thought they outplayed us. But I was proud of our guys. We haven’t had a close game in a long time. We will learn a lot from this game, and this will prepare us for the postseason.”
Mangas, after scoring just four points in the opening half, scored 19 of his game-high 23 points after halftime, including seven straight in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the second half to reground the Wildcats and eventually spur them to victory. IWU’s star guard also collected 10 rebounds, two assists, and two steals.
“There are moments he may be down, but he is never out. That’s just Kyle,” Tonagel said. “He can score in bunches, and he did that tonight.”
Inserted into the starting lineup due to an injury to Noah Smith, Piercefield finished the game with 15 points, none bigger than his final field goal in the guts of the game. With the Wildcats clinging on to a 66-63 lead, Piercefield cut into the lane, received a pass from Mangas, and laid the ball in to give the Wildcats a five-point advantage with 1:17 to play.
“I was just trying to take advantage of what they gave me,” Piercefield said. “They were guarding the arc hard, so I was just trying to get in the lane and make plays. My teammates had a lot of confidence in me to do that, and they kept encouraging me to do that, so it was just natural.”
Moments later, with 56.9 to play, Mangas followed with a bucket of his own in the paint, securing the Wildcats’ triumph.
Seth Maxwell finished the contest with 13 points and nine rebounds, Dylan Alderson collected 11 points and seven boards, and Michael Thompson III rounded out the Wildcats scoring with 10 points.
Despite failing to come away with the win, Taylor Head Coach Josh Andrews was thrilled with his team’s performance against the No. 1 team in the nation. No matter the deficit, the Trojans continued to do battle —clawing, scratching, and brawling— forcing the Wildcats to grapple for every point.
“Our guys just manned up as a group,” Andrews said. “They came here with a battle mindset, and I think they saw what they were capable of. It’s really tough that that’s the last one. That was a thrill to coach, and a thrill to see them battle like that. The guys just stayed with it.”
Every Trojan starter finished in double figures, led by CJ Penha, who scored 20— 18 of which came in the second half. Any time the Wildcats looked to pull away, Penha scored a basket or made a strong defensive play, keeping the Trojans in the contest.
“It just seemed like they were hitting so many tough shots in that second half,” Mangas added. “Give credit to them— they were doing all they could to win— especially Penha. He is so skilled, and he can score inside and out. I feel like our defense wasn’t that bad — they just played really tough on offense.”
Jason Hubbard scored 14 points in the contest, and played incredible defense in the first half, holding Mangas to just two field goals in the opening 20 minutes, which threw the Wildcats out of their rhythm on the offensive end of the floor.
“Jason is such an elite on-ball defender, he just battled and battled,” Andrews said. “He was super disciplined. Mangas is such a hard guy to stay down on because his shot fake, his pass fake, and foot fake is just incredible.”
Vincent Miranda and James Cloud scored 14 and 10 points, respectively, in their final collegiate basketball games, while freshman Gavin Yoon scored 12 points on four triples.
Taylor came out of the gate firing, as a pair of threes from Yoon and two field goals from Hubbard helped the Trojans take a 14-9 lead in the first 6:03 of the contest. IWU countered with a 9-0 run over the next three minutes, grabbing a 22-14 advantage, but the Trojans answered with a 14-4 surge, which included six points from Hubbard and four from McCloud, to go up by two.
“They were definitely more physical than us, and earlier in the year, that may have not been the case,” Mangas said. “Tonight, on both sides of the ball, they were hitting us. It’s tough when a team does that. It puts you on your heels a little bit. On offense, it made us take too quick of shots.”
The two teams exchanged baskets the rest of the first half. Field goals from Piercefield and Thompson III put the Wildcats up four, but five straight points from Miranda, including a three at the buzzer, gave the Trojans a 33-32 advantage.
However, that was the last time the Trojans would hold the lead.
Piercefield scored the opening basket of the second half, and Mangas followed with seven straight points to turn IWU’s one-point deficit into a six-point lead.
The Trojans never flinched, keeping within six points for the majority of the second half until Piercefield put IWU up eight with 3:58 to play.
Five straight points from Penha made it 66-63 with 1:39 left on the clock, but Piercefield’s and Mangas’ heroics on IWU’s, following two possessions, slammed the door on the Trojans’ upset bid.
“There are no moral victories, but…our guys did what they needed to do to have a chance with two minutes to go,” Andrews said. “If we get a stop inside of two minutes, we are in a one possession game and feeling pretty confident. Credit [IWU] for making a big play.”
While it was not IWU’s best performance of the season, Mangas believes that Wednesday’s game will prepare them going forward, both through the remainder of the Crossroads League Tournament and into the National Championship.
“Every game is not going to be a roll-over. You are going to face very competitive teams,” Mangas said. “Playing close games like that, that’s really good for us.”
And while it was the final game of the season for the Trojans, Andrews believes that his group, after their performance against the Wildcats, is destined to be special in the seasons to come.
“We’re hurting that that [game] was the last one,” Andrews said. “But I am excited for the future of the program and this group. They know what they are capable of, and we’ve got to use it to make us better.”