SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - After facing 40 minutes of Puget Sound's relentless full court defensive pressure, the Illinois Wesleyan basketball team surely slept well Thursday night.
Had the top-ranked Titans allowed a shrinking 23-point second half lead to totally disappear, they may not have slept at all.
No. 5-ranked Puget Sound clawed back within six points before IWU regrouped sufficiently to claim a draining 104-87 victory in the Tom Byron Classic at Westmont College.
"Their pressure wears you down physically and mentally," IWU coach Scott Trost said. "We were not as sharp the second half, but we made plays when we needed to. It's still a 17-point win over the fifth-ranked team."
Wesleyan moved to 9-0 before a Murchison Gymnasium crowd of 350 and will face host Westmont at 9:30 p.m. (CST) today in the tournament title game. Westmont defeated Berry, 85-63, in Thursday's second game.
"The damage was done the first half," Puget Sound coach Eric Bridgeland said. "It was a story of two halves. They were very aggressive the first half. The second half we were very aggressive and had them on the run."
Frequently negotiating Puget Sound's trapping press with ease and converting the high percentage shots that resulted in the opening half, IWU motored to a 59-38 advantage entering halftime.
"We worked six on five all week (in practice). That helped us prepare for them," said senior forward Steve Schweer. "Once we would break their initial trap, we had a lot of mismatches."
Jason Fisher gave the Titans a 23-point bulge with the opening basket of the second half before an 11-2 Loggers' run fueled by post player Zack McVey brought Puget Sound within 63-49 with 17:06 remaining.
Committing 11 of the second half's first 13 personals, Wesleyan also ran into serious foul trouble as Cory Jones and Adam Dauksas picked up their fourth fouls before the 11-minute mark.
The Titans led 79-58 with 11:05 remaining, but Puget Sound (7-2) had another run left.
Three Chase Curtiss 3-pointers in a span of 1:33 helped slice the IWU edge to 90-84 at the 4:19 mark. Curtiss totaled seven 3-pointers and finished with 24 points.
Playing his first game of the season after serving an eight-game NCAA suspension, senior guard Matt Arnold then nailed a critical 3-pointer and the Titans pulled away in the final minute and a half.
"It's a hectic, frantic pace. They got us back on our heels the second half and we had some careless turnovers," said Trost. "But we're bigger and we have better athletes. Matt hit some big shots down the stretch. Chris (Jones) and Schweer gave us some really good minutes."
Keelan Amelianovich cooled after a sizzling start and led the Titans with 24 points. Dauksas had 22 points, 12 assists and four steals, while Zach Freeman contributed nine points and nine rebounds.
"They tried to wear us down," said Dauksas, who moved past IWU assistant coach Chad Hutson into second on the school's career assist list. "But we worked really hard, and I thought we handled their press really well. I think our maturity showed."
Hitting the century mark for the first time this season, Wesleyan also received 14 points from Chris Jones, 11 from Schweer and nine each from Arnold and Cory Jones.
The Titans shot 58 percent from the field and won two key statistical battles, committing 17 turnovers to Puget Sound's 24 and outrebounding the Loggers, 45-35.
McVey paced Puget Sound, which forces an average of 33 turnovers, with 26 points and 12 rebounds.
With early success from 3-point range against an IWU zone defense, Puget Sound grabbed a 17-14 lead.
A 15-3 spurt fueled by Amelianovich, who scored 16 points in the game's first 9:39, gave IWU a 29-20 margin.
A Taylor Marsh 3-pointer gave Puget Sound a momentary respite before IWU unleashed a surge of 11 straight points for a 40-23 cushion.
"Obviously, that's the best team we've played all year," said Bridgeland, whose team owns a victory over Division I California-Riverside. "And that's the best zone. They're very big. We didn't execute well the first half."
Schweer scored seven consecutive points late in the first half and had a season-high nine before the break.
Puget Sound, which launched 39 3-point attempts and connected on 15, shot 32.5 percent in the first half and 38.7 percent overall.