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Wildcats season filled with success

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

Success doesn't always mean winning national championships, and the Indiana Wesleyan University men's basketball team can relate after falling short of a second consecutive NAIA Division II national title.

Battling through injuries, the Wildcats bowed out of the DII tournament with a 107-93 loss Saturday evening to Oregon Tech in the quarterfinals. Oregon Tech later advanced to the final game Tuesday and was defeated 82-76 by Spring Arbor (Michigan), which had shared the regular season Crossroads League title the 'Cats.

Spring Arbor was the third Crossroads League team to hoist the national title banner since 2010, joining the 'Cats (2014, '16 and '18) and St. Francis (2010). IWU, which finished 30-5, had won the league's postseason tournament, was the No. 1-ranked team in DII and the tournament's top seed.

Yet, the 'Cats dealt with mounting injuries that began with point guard Joel Okafor breaking a hand before the tournament and 6-foot-10 center Evan Maxwell playing through back spasms. Then, all-American guard Kyle Mangas sprained an ankle in the opening game against Washington Adventist (Maryland) and tweaked it again in the next game against Corban (Oregon).

"I don't think when we got out to the tournament we were the same team that we'd been all year," IWU coach Greg Tonagel said Thursday afternoon. "The tournament is all about not necessarily the best team but the hottest team in the tournament, and we weren't the hottest team.

"It's not like the NCAA (tournament) when you play two games, come home for a week and rest where you can heel up the injuries and play some more. You've got to play five games in six days and it's all got to come together in the right, perfect moment. It didn't for us this year," he added.

Mangas, named to the NAIA DII All-America first team for the second-straight year Thursday, said the injuries were unfortunate, but the 'Cats failed to execute against Oregon Tech.

"We were banged up, but that's no excuse," Mangas said. "We didn't play our best in that final game."

While the 'Cats failed to defend their national title, Mangas said they can take pride in the season and their many accomplishments.

"Yeah, I would say season was a success, for sure," Mangas said. "Our main goal is the national championship, and it was unfortunate not to win that this year. But there's still so many positives from the season — the conference championship and 30 wins and that's a pretty big deal. That was a successful season."

The season certainly had its challenges, and IWU had setbacks starting in the offeseason. Mangas had surgery on a foot during the summer and missed offseason activities, while Grant Smith had various health issues stemming from a spider bite that affected his play throughout the season.

Early in the season, Tonagel said the 'Cats struggled to find their rhythm and had a stretch where they did not play well, highlighted by back-to-back league losses to Saint Francis and Spring Arbor in early December. After that they had only two more losses in the regular season, an almost inexplicable defeat at last-place Goshen and at Marian.

"We always have a target on our back and even more so coming off a national championship," Tonagel said. "It's caused our guys to raise their play to another level and I like how the guys responded this year.

"The season's never a straight journey to the end," he added. "It's filled with a lot of ups and downs and every time we had a down I was pleased with how they responded. They stayed together and put in a lot of work."

Maxwell, Okafor and Trevor Waite graduate in May and Tonagel said each will be missed in their own unique way. Maxwell's size and wide-ranging offensive skills made him a force inside; Okafor was a quick and physical point guard who led the team in floor burns, and Waite brought energy and 3-point shooting from off the bench.

"Evan did a great job and really carried us in the middle part of the season ... we could throw it down to him and he could dominate," Tonagel said. "Joel is the heart of this team and we're going to miss him as much as anybody because he played so hard and his energy was infectious.

"(Okafor) played with a broken hand the entire national tournament and not many guys would do that ... and continue to dive on the floor and fight and scrap. He was inspiring," Tonagel added.

The 2019-20 edition of the 'Cats will begin with Mangas and Smith, both expected to be fully recovered and continue their assent to the top ranks of DII. Mangas already is a two-time Crossroads League Player of the Year and NAIA All-American, and Tonagel said Smith has similar potential.

"Grant Smith is a key one for us," Tonagel said. "He's got the ability and potential to be an all-American."

Canaan Coffey will be the lone senior with significant experience and a third returning starter. After that, Tonagel said the three freshman on this year's team, 7-footer Seth Maxwell, point guard Isaiah Payton and forward Jonathan Mpanzu, will need to take over important roles.

"(The freshmen) played their best basketball at the end of the year," Tonagel said. "They got off to a slow start like most freshmen, but out in national tournament I thought Seth played his best basketball and so did Isaiah.

"We're going to need those guys to not just take steps but leaps forward in the offseason," he added. "They've got to get in the weight room and they've got to grow in confidence."

Tonagel has signed three players for 2019-20 and is looking to add two more. Tim Adetukasi, a 6-5 forward and native of Great Britain, arrived on campus in January, while Noah Smith is a 6-1 guard from Hamilton Southeastern and Spencer Piercefield is a shooting guard from Center Grove.