Throughout the second half of the 2019-2020 season, the IWU Wildcats’ success has been directly related to two key factors.
First has been their play on the defensive end of the floor, and the second has been the steady, consistent performances from their starters and their bench night in and night out.
And in the Crossroads League Quarterfinals on Wednesday evening, both areas played a crucial role in the Wildcats’ victory.
Behind an elite defensive performance and a remarkable team effort, IWU cruised through the first game of the annual league tournament, dominating the Mount Vernon Nazarene Cougars from start to finish in a 101-69 rout.
As the season has progressed, IWU’s play on the defensive end of the floor has become more and more cohesive. From the sturdy presence of Noah Smith on the perimeter to the size of Seth Maxwell underneath the basket, the Wildcats are a tough team to score on, and their defensive prowess was on full display throughout the evening.
“We are playing together, collectively, on the defensive end,” IWU Head Coach Greg Tonagel said. “It starts with Noah Smith, who is obviously a great perimeter defender, and then, you finish with Seth Maxwell at the rim. When you have layers of defense like that, it just puts so much pressure on the offense to be perfect.”
The Cougars, who once ranked as high as four in the Top-25 poll, fell behind early and could not recover, shooting just 29-of-68 (42.4 percent) for the contest. Mount Vernon only had two players finish in double figures, and with Smith guarding him for most of the evening, Cougars’ leading scorer Jevon Knox scored just seven points. Furthermore, Austin Jones, who came in averaging 15 points per contest, was held without a point.
“We have been focusing on talking more and having an edge on defense,” IWU center Seth Maxwell said. “We are all together, communicating, and we [were] locked into the [scouting report,] so we knew what actions were coming. We just stuck to the gameplan.”
Of the 14 Wildcats that saw action on Wednesday, 12 of them scored at least at least two points. As a team, IWU shot lights out, knocking down a remarkable 43 of their 67 shots from the field, good for 64.2 percent.
“We are just rolling on offense,” Maxwell said. “We are all playing together. We are just trying to make the simple play and make sure we move the ball before taking a shot. It’s been working out pretty well.”
IWU guard Kyle Mangas scored the first basket of the game at the 17:54 mark, and from that moment on, the Wildcats never trailed.
While the Wildcats’ offense seemingly scored at will, their defense kept the Cougars off the scoreboard. Over the first 9:17 of the contest, the Wildcats built a 26-8 lead, holding Mount Vernon to just four field goals in the process.
“That was huge, because Mount Vernon is, obviously, a very good offensive team,” Mangas said. “They have a lot of good scorers and high scorers, and they have a lot of sets they go to to get buckets. We came out with a sense of urgency tonight defensively. [We just had] great focus.”
Mount Vernon’s best push came in the following six-and-a-half minutes. From the 10:43 mark to the 4:11 mark, the Cougars cut the Wildcats’ lead to as little as 12 on two separate occasions.
But every time the Cougars looked to get within striking distance, the Wildcats had an answer.
After MVNU’s Jacob Paul made it 39-27 with 4:11 remaining in the first half, Mangas responded with a pair of baskets, increasing the Wildcats’ advantage back to 16. Field goals from Maxwell and Tanner Rubio kept the IWU lead at 15, and seven points from Michael Thompson III in the final 40 seconds put the Wildcats up 53-32 at the halftime break.
IWU’s lead was never threatened in the second half. Their advantage never dipped below 23 points, and they led by as many 41 points in the final 20 minutes before cruising to their eventual 32-point triumph.
After shooting 22-of-36 in the first half, the Wildcats were even more efficient after halftime, shooting 21-of-31 from the floor (67.7 percent).
Mangas continued his stellar junior campaign, finishing with 24 points on 12-of-17 shooting to lead the Wildcats. With his 24 points, Mangas vaulted into second place on IWU’s all-time scoring list, surpassing Durand “Speedy” Walker.
“It means a lot, just with the tradition of Indiana Wesleyan basketball and how many great players have come through here,” Mangas said. “Credit to the coaches and my teammates for just pushing me every day.”
Along with that, Mangas continued to move up the Crossroads League scoring list, moving into 12th place over “Speedy” Walker and former Bethel star William Walker.
Tanner Rubio finished with 13 points and six assists, while Maxwell collected 11 points and five blocks in the post.
Thompson and Isaiah Payton each put together one of their finest performances in a Wildcat uniform, combining for 20 points off the bench. Spencer Piercefield finished with eight points, while Tim Adetukasi and Jonathon Mpanzu each added four.
“[All of those] guys have worked their way into the lineup,” Tonagel said. “When they weren’t playing, they were practicing, and that is hard to do. But now, it’s really paying dividends.”
In the Crossroads League, no games are ever easy, and when it comes to the tournament, there can be no letdowns. And against the defending national champions on Saturday afternoon, Tonagel and the Wildcats know they need to continue to perform at a high level.
“They are the defending champs, and they are playing better basketball,” Tonagel said. “They are getting healthy – they weren’t throughout the year. It’s going to be a battle. None of these games are easy. We are really going to have to retool up and get locked in and be ready for 40 minutes of basketball.”
“Spring Arbor knows how to win. They’re peaking at the right time,” Mangas concluded. “They are playing some of their best basketball of the season. That’s going to be a big challenge for us. We are going to have to come out ready to go.”