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Western Illinois basketball eyeing first NCAA tournament bid

Western Illinois player CeolClark action. Phocourtesy Western Illinois

Western Illinois player Ceola Clark in action. Photo courtesy of Western Illinois

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Updated: April 1, 2013 11:50AM

One field goal separated Western Illinois from history last March, when the Leathernecks lost in overtime to South Dakota State in the championship game of the Summit League tournament.

Western’s 52-50 defeat meant missing out on what would have been its first trip to the NCAA tournament, but the unexpected 18-14 season was a turning point.

‘‘We were excited to come back and do things that had never been done at Western,’’ said senior forward Don McAvoy III, a Mount Carmel graduate from the South Side. ‘‘Winning 20 games was our goal. You can never predict what’s going to happen, but we had one of the best point guards in the country coming back and a great center. We had the core.’’

Now, a game away from their 20-victory goal, the Leathernecks (19-7, 11-3 Summit League) are focusing on more.

‘‘We want to try to get a banner up as regular-season champs,’’ coach Jim Molinari said.

Then will come the conference tournament and another chance at a first NCAA tournament bid.

‘‘That’s something that for yourself, for the school and the team and our little family here, it would be amazing to see Western Illinois on the bracket,’’ McAvoy said.

For a time this season, Western was the only state school that seemed to have a chance to be part of March Madness.

In senior guard Ceola Clark III, who played at Warren, the Leather-
necks have the two-time reigning Summit League defensive player of the year and their all-time assists leader. In senior center Terell Parks, they have the Summit League’s top rebounder and shot-blocker and the player with the most double-doubles.

And in Molinari, they have a coach with a history of success. His 32 years in the game include 10 seasons at DePaul, where he was an assistant to Ray and Joey Meyer; two seasons at Northern Illinois, where he won a conference title, set a school record for victories in a season and went to the NCAA tournament; and 11 seasons at Bradley, where his teams made six postseason appearances, including the 1996 NCAA tournament.

Molinari came to Western in 2008. At the time, the Leathernecks had lost more than 60 games in the previous three seasons.

‘‘Western was more of a challenge because Bradley had a great history and Northern had some tradition and we inherited some good players,’’ he said. ‘‘But the approach [to rebuilding] was the same. I try to establish an identity, and it’s always been half-court
defense, don’t beat yourself and outlast your opponent.

‘‘You also really have to put in an attitude, and then you have to establish relationships in the program, in the community and, obviously, in recruiting.’’

His most significant success might have been with Clark, who already was on the team when
Molinari arrived.

‘‘Before he even got here, he came to Gurnee to my grandmother’s funeral,’’ said Clark, who redshirted his freshman season
after injuries. ‘‘I knew he would be a great influence on me. I come from a single-parent home, and Coach and [assistant coach] Billy Wright have been great father figures. They pushed me to get my degree.’’

Clark graduated last year but chose to return for his final season of eligibility while taking graduate classes.

‘‘I’ve always been up for challenges, and it was a chance to be part of something special here,’’ Clark said.

‘‘I have great admiration for him because he came back to try to win a championship,’’ Molinari said. ‘‘I’ve always thought the greatest thing you can have in coaching is impact [on lives]. I want our young men to succeed in life, too.’’

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