PEORIA, Ill. – IPFW is a program that needs to build equity in the Fort Wayne community and with its fan base.
The Mastodons men's basketball team has shown reasons to believe in it over recent seasons. But it often has seemed like a hard-luck group that takes a step forward, inevitably followed by a step or two back.
What IPFW did Tuesday was a definitive step forward.
IPFW made enough critical plays down the stretch to hold off a rallying – and very desperate – Bradley squad 65-61 in front of 5,977 fans.
It was only the second win over a Missouri Valley Conference program in 10 tries for IPFW, and that significance was further enhanced by the location.
“I don't think the fact that we went on the road, in a guarantee game, in the Missouri Valley is the important point,” Mastodon coach Tony Jasick said. “The important point is that we went on the road and we played well.”
IPFW did have a lot go “well,” but it also had a lot go not so well, and that made the outcome even more impressive.
The Mastodons (8-4) had two frontcourt starters (Michael Kibiloski and Steve Forbes), their lone regular frontcourt reserve (Joe Reed) and their leading scorer (Luis Jacobo) each pick up four fouls and be limited down the stretch.
Jasick spent a good portion of the second half managing his personnel possession by possession, as the fouls began to add up in a game that was clearly going down to the final seconds (which it did).
“Things didn't go our way late,” Jasick said, “and we responded.”
IPFW responded by not only overcoming foul problems, but also having to survive Jacobo being a non-factor aside from the final seconds.
Jacobo entered the game averaging a team-best 14.5 points and second on the team in rebounding (5.3 boards per game). Until 27 seconds were remaining, he had totaled no points and one rebound.
“The ball just wasn't going in for me,” Jacobo said. “It was tough, but at the end of the day, we got the win.”
Somehow they got the win because of Jacobo, not despite him.
The Mastodons allowed Bradley (5-5) to whittle a nine-point deficit and take the lead (61-60) with 41 seconds remaining. The Braves grabbed offensive rebounds and forced a Mastodons turnover in the final 1:37. But with the game on the line, Jacobo and his 0-for-5 shooting, stepped up and buried a three-pointer.
Forbes added a rebound and a pair of free throws with two seconds remaining to seal the deal.
“That is a character ball,” Jasick said of the winning shot. “Luis didn't have a great game, and the coaches climbed into him for a couple of (bad) plays that he had made throughout the game. But we put him in with 41 seconds to go and ran a play and there was no hesitation.”
This was a much-needed win by both teams for very different reasons.
IPFW has fought to the final seconds against more renowned programs (Dayton and Illinois) this season only to fall short. The Bradley game had all of the makings of another game that would give cynics reason to doubt what Jasick has been constructing for two-plus seasons.
Bradley, on the other hand, had lost four of its previous five games and won't take the court again for 10 days. And because they play in a beast of a league, the Braves need all of the nonconference success they can generate. It probably makes their athletic director a bit queasy knowing that he has to cut a sizable check to IPFW while also losing the “guarantee game.”
“The biggest thing for me, taking away from this with our team,” Jasick said, “is confidence, play the right way and you'll get rewarded. And we've been preaching it, preaching it and preaching it. Play the right way and you'll get rewarded.”
Perhaps it's time for a program that is playing well to reap the rewards of better public perception. And Tuesday's notable victory certainly should help.