LEBANON — Senior John Steppe's potential game-tying 3-pointer caromed out Thursday, and with it went McKendree University's chance to win its first Great Lakes Valley Conference game.
The Bearcats trailed by three when Steppe came off a screen and misfired from the right wing with three seconds to play. Illinois Springfield grabbed the rebound, and after a timeout, the Prairie Stars ran out the clock and basked in a 69-66 victory.
"Any time you win a road conference game, it's a good win," said UIS coach Ben Wierzba, who played at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. "Coach (Harry) Statham does a great job. They're disciplined, they take care of the ball, they take good shots.
"The second half, we guarded better and we had a few more offensive rebounds, but we buckled down on the defensive end, and that's what gave us a chance to win the ballgame."
The Prairie Stars improved to 3-7 overall and 1-1 in the GLVC while dropping McKendree to 6-5 and 0-1.
Steppe led the Bearcats with 20 points and five assists. Freshman Matt Murphy had 13, sophomore Mike DiGregorio had 12 and junior Clinton Happe had 10.
Freshman Dusko Despot came off the bench and led the Prairie Stars with 13 points and three 3-pointers. Despot's 3 out of the left corner put UIS ahead 67-59 with 4:08 to play.
That's when the Bearcats went on a 7-2 run culminated by Steppe's 3-pointer that made it 69-66 with 2:36 to play. But neither team scored again.
The Prairie Stars had a shot-clock violation with 12.2 seconds left, setting up the Bearcats' final possession that went awry.
"We got a good shot," Statham said. "(But) we didn't get enough free throws tonight; we only (took) five free throws. We want to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line a little bit more. We weren't aggressive. We stood a little too much, I think."
McKendree was 4-for-5 from the line. The Prairie Stars also struggled to get to the line, finishing 5-for-6. The Bearcats made eight 3-pointers, but they came on 29 attempts.
The game was tied at 40 at halftime, and the second half was one of runs. McKendree led 45-42 before UIS went on an 8-0 run to lead 50-45. The Bearcats trailed 58-50, but climbed within 58-57 before the Prairie Stars scored six in a row to make it 64-57.
"Inch for inch, we battled them pretty hard," said Statham, whose roster has been compromised by injuries. "We gave away a lot of size and quickness and athleticism and experience. We have a lot young guys playing, new guys playing.
"We made a lot of good plays, but in a game like this, one possession or two is the difference in the ballgame."
The last time UIS and McKendree played in a league opener was 2006 when both were in the American Midwest Conference. In that game, the Prairie Stars defeated the Bearcats by the same 69-66 score in Lebanon.
Illinois Springfield 75, McKendree 56
In the women's game, McKendree fell flat in its GLVC opener, shooting 29 percent (19-for-65) in its one-sided loss.
The Bearcats (5-4, 0-1) forced 23 turnovers, but were outrebounded 48-33 and were 13-for-22 from the free-throw line.
McKendree coach Melissa Ringhausen was disappointed in her team's effort and corresponding execution.
"We came out slow, with no intensity," Ringhausen said. "We just never found ourselves this entire game."
Ringhausen didn't use the long layoff as an excuse. It was McKendree's first game since Dec. 5.
"Everybody had the same layoff that we had," she said. "It's an even playing field in that regard. We did not show up ready to play and we had zero intensity. When you don't have those two things, you're not going to win in the GLVC.
"It's a whole different level. I know this team is capable of playing at that level, but they need to show up on game day."
McKendree's leading scorer, sophomore Caty Ponce of Edwardsville, was 3-for-20 from the floor and had just seven points. Ponce was 1-for-7 on 3-pointers.
Ponce entered the game averaging 21.3 points.
"Caty's going to get everybody's best defender," Ringhausen said. "She needs to be able to respond to a night when she's not shooting well and be able to do other things that are productive out there.
"She also needs to be a leader on the floor. We can't see her be frustrated because she's having an off night."
Freshman Liz Gilman paced the Bearcats with 19 points. No other player had more than seven points. McKendree didn't score until senior Shelby Woelful's basket with 16:34 to play in the half.
UIS (4-5, 1-1), which improved to 5-18 all-time against McKendree, was led by junior Mallory Beck, who had 14 points and eight rebounds off the bench. Junior Megan Bergerud had 12 points, while seven other players broke into the scoring column.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.