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KENOSHA — With just one redshirt senior on a roster full of freshmen and sophomores, it may have been logical to expect the UW-Parkside men’s basketball team to fly under the radar this season.

But, as they say, that’s why they play the games.

Led by four of its top-five overall scorers – all sophomores – the Rangers put the finishing touches on their first Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title Saturday night with a 73-65 victory over visiting Saginaw Valley State.

UW-Parkside men's basketball champs
The UW-Parkside Rangers battled their way to the conference title on Saturday under leadership of Coach Luke Reigel. – Credit: UW-Parkside Athletics

Parkside, which joined the GLIAC in 2018, improved to 21-7 overall and 14-4 in conference play. With the victory, the Rangers also claimed the top seed and home-court advantage throughout the GLIAC Tournament, which begins Wednesday night.

The Rangers host Michigan Tech in a first-round matchup at 7:30 p.m. at the De Simone Gymnasium.

For longtime Parkside head coach Luke Reigel, who now has six conference titles (including four from the Great Lakes Valley Conference) on his resume, seeing his team cut down the nets on its home floor was quite the unforgettable moment.

“Saturday was a special day,” he said. “This group has grown so tight throughout the season and just supports each other so well. I don’t know if I’ve had a team that is so positive with one another all the time, even when a teammate is struggling. It’s been fun to watch throughout the year.

“We battled through a tough GLIAC schedule to come out on top. I think the only people who thought we had a chance to do that were the players in our locker room at the beginning of the year. Overall, just a great regular season. Winning a regular-season title is special, because you have to be the best team for four months. This isn’t a ‘getting hot for a week’ type of a thing.”

The Rangers are led in scoring by Rasheed Bello (18.5 points per game), followed by Jamir Simpson (14.4), Josiah Palmer (11.5), Colin O’Rourke (11.4, but currently out with injury) and Nick Brown (8.5) – and all but Bello are redshirt-sophomores, who gained an extra year of collegiate eligibility because of COVID-19.

That extra year certainly has paid dividends, Reigel said.

“Most of those guys got good experience last year, some even the year before,” he said. “We’re a little bit more experienced than it looks. Overall, it’s very exciting, not only right now, but for the future.”

Each of the redshirt-sophomores – which also includes Brett Myre, Jacksun Hamilton and Sanmi Fajana –  came to the Parkside campus at the height of the pandemic, certainly not a great way to start their collegiate careers.

But they’ve stayed the course, overcome that, and now have played a big role in the Rangers’ GLIAC title.

“This group of kids who are in their third year with us came here, and their first year as freshmen was the COVID year,” Reigel said. “Not only did we have all these restrictions, they were practicing in masks, but it was only athletes on our campus. Everybody else was online, living at home.

“For them to experience what they experienced (last) Thursday and Saturday with unbelievable crowds and clinching at home, that makes it a little extra special for that group, particularly.”

Defense leads the way

Reigel said this team hangs its hat on tough defense, and for the most part throughout the regular season, that has been the Rangers’ calling card.

Through 28 games, Parkside has allowed opponents 66.7 points per game and scored at a 73-points-per-game clip.

“If you look at our entire season, I think our biggest strength has been on the defensive end,” Reigel said. “We’ve had a few games where teams have really lit us up, but overall, we have very good perimeter defenders, and our guys inside battle and do what they can to get on the glass. They’re tough kids.

“That’s been the reason we’ve had as much success as we’ve had. Most nights, our defense has performed well, particularly on the road.”

Coupling that tough defense night-in, night-out with a balanced scoring attack has been the recipe for success, Reigel said.

And that’s normally been the case. When the Rangers can spread the scoring around, usually good things happen, he said.

“If you look at the history of our program, our best teams are always when we have three or four guys averaging in double figures,” Reigel said. “When we’ve had one or two guys that are big-time scorers and a bunch of guys in single digits, we haven’t been as successful.”

The outcome Saturday was in doubt throughout, as the teams exchanged leads several times.

Saginaw Valley held its last lead at 48-46 with a 10-2 scoring run, before Parkside answered back and took the lead for good with 7 minutes, 53 seconds left on a layup by Brown. Back-to-back baskets by Bello, who led the way with 23 points and is a favorite to earn Player of the Year honors in the GLIAC, pushed the advantage to six.

Parkside closed the game out at the free-throw line to secure the win.

Turning the page

The Rangers face the Michigan Tech Huskies in the first round of the GLIAC Tournament on Wednesday night they have beaten handily twice this season.

Parkside owns victories of 72-49 and 76-58 over Michigan Tech – but Reigel said none of that matters in the third matchup.

This is a new season, and everyone starts with a clean slate, he said.

“We told the guys on Saturday, ‘Understand what you’ve just accomplished, enjoy it and appreciate it,’” said Reigel. “But Monday, when we come back in, everybody is 0-0, and we get back to work. Michigan Tech is going to have a bunch of kids from Wisconsin who want to beat us.

“The games (earlier this season) were a lot closer than the final score. It was a battle for the first 25 or 30 minutes in both those games, and then we pulled away late. Michigan Tech has nothing to lose. We’ll probably see some things we haven’t seen from them. And we have a big target on us. We just have to keep performing at the level we’ve been playing at.”

The GLIAC Tournament continues at UW-Parkside throughout the weekend – as long the Rangers continue to win, they have the home-court advantage. At stake for the tournament champion is an automatic berth into the NCAA Division II Tournament. A total of five at-large bids into that field will be handed out as well.


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