By CODY RIVERA
Special to The Herald-Whig
MACOMB, Ill. -- The Western Illinois University men's basketball team finished off its most thrilling comeback of the season Thursday night, overcoming a 19-point deficit to post a 53-50 victory over Missouri-Kansas City in Summit League play at Western Hall.
"We all stepped up," senior guard Ceola Clark said. "Without these guys, we would have never been able to bring ourselves back into that game."
The come-from-behind victory helped the Leathernecks stay in the hunt for a Summit League championship.
WIU (20-7, 12-3) can claim a share of the regular-season title with South Dakota State if it beats South Dakota on Saturday at Western Hall. That would also wrap up the No. 2 seed for the league tournament.
"The whole thing was a team effort," WIU coach Jim Molinari said. "It was one of the best comebacks I've ever been a part of. It was a tremendous victory, and it gives us a chance to try and win a conference championship."
Better yet, it showed the Leathernecks can handle adversity.
Playing its first game without senior center Terell Parks, who leads the Summit League in rebounding but is nursing an ankle injury, WIU showed no pulse in the first half and trailed 39-21 at halftime.
"I talked to Terell at halftime," Clark said. "He said, ‘We can't let this one slip away.'"
The offense made sure it didn't.
Jack Houpt opened with half with back-to-back 3-pointers and freshman guard Jordan Foster added another triple. It started a surge that ultimately led to the Leathernecks tying the game at 48 with 4:09 remaining.
"We were all out of sync," Houpt said. "We weren't being aggressive enough. I was looking for my sho,t and I knew I had to step up as a senior. In the second half, I started knocking down shots to start that run. That just sparked it and everyone else started hitting big shots and we were back in the game.
"We weren't playing with enough passion. Passion is what fuels us on defense and carries over into offense."
Junior forward Michael Ochereobia took a steal coast-to-coast to give WIU its first lead with 3:50 remaining, and the Leathernecks never trailed again.
Ochereobia led WIU with 14 points starting in place of Parks.
In the final minute of regulation, the Kangaroos had a chance to tie the game thanks to missed free throws by Houpt and Remy Roberts-Burnett. But an airball on a final 3-point attempt by UMKC sealed the victory in front of a raucous Western Hall crowd.
"You have to love playing in front of these fans," Houpt said. "They come out every night and support us. They're like the sixth man out there helping us out a lot."