After a slow start to the conference season, the Griffons have now won three out of their last four games to get back to .500 in the win-loss column. Smith is seeing the improvement that comes with a new team starting to gel after a rocky start. "There's no question that this team is getting better," Smith said. "Are we out of the woods? Certainly not by a long shot, but that's the whole thing is to keep getting better as the season goes along, especially when you have two or three new starters." Harris, one of the few impact players on the team that also played a major role last season, is encouraged by the improvement in team chemistry with his new teammates. "We started out shaky but we are playing more as a team," Harris said. "We know where our spots are at, where guys sweet spots are at on the court so we are coming together as a team." The Griffons return to action against Lindenwood University on Jan. 16 at the MWSU Fieldhouse.
Western men's basketball (7-7, 3-3) protected its home court by defeating rival No. 24 Northwest Missouri 71-58. The Bearcats came into the game as the only undefeated team in MIAA conference play. "We just came out knowing that they were the top dogs in the league," Kalvin Balque said. "We just wanted to come and show everybody that we can be one of those teams too and that we are just underrated." Balque provided a spark off the bench for the Griffons with 13 points including two big makes from 3-point distance when the game was close. Coach Tom Smith gave him credit for raising his level of play against a tough team despite inconsistent playing time earlier in the season. "Not only did he have a good performance, but he has taken a lot of criticism from me for stepping up and being the type of player that we know he's capable of being," Smith said. "There's been games where he didn't get to play much and some where he didn't get to play at all. To come back from that to stand up and play like that against the toughest team of the year is pretty good." The Griffons got off to a fast start by taking a 6-0 lead before the Bearcats got on the scoreboard. Smith said he stressed that the team play on an even keel as he has seen even some of his greatest teams use up their energy early in the intense rivalry game against Northwest. Northwest battled back and went into the halftime break with a 33-31 lead, but the Griffons locked down defensively and only allowed 25 points in the second half while scoring 40. "We just played hard," James Harris said. "Our confidence level is high right now. They are just another team in the MIAA, we don't look at anyone different just because of their record. We just come in and play every game as one." The Griffons had five players score in double-figures, something that has been missing during the losses and that Smith would love to continue to see. Harris led the team with 14 points while Balque added 13. Dzenan Mrkaljevic scored 11 points, including 3-for-4 from 3-point distance and added 10 rebounds and Adarius Fulton scored 11 points with six assists. Cedric Clinkscales scored seven points and pulled down 10 boards. Alfreeman Flowers scored 10 points including a huge dunk where he jumped up and flushed a lob pass from Harris, which was the undisputed most exciting play of the night and possibly the season sending the crowd into a frenzy. Smith thought that Northwest would be more prepared to play in the zone after having no games last week, but the defense forced the Bearcats to shoot just 7-for-29 from 3-point distance and 4-for-20 from deep in the second half.