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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 3:14 pm

Mastodons work way up Summit

Kyle Rowland The Journal Gazette

As the final minute ticked away in a 29-point loss at South Dakota State, IPFW basketball coach Jon Coffman sat on the bench and processed the series of events.

The Mastodons, preseason favorites in the Summit League, were 1-5 and in last place. Thoughts of the program’s first NCAA tournament bid evaporated.

It differed dramatically from the rosy preseason picture. A 25-win season that ended on the cusp of March Madness gave way to heightened expectations. IPFW returned all-league player Steve Forbes, and Coffman, a first-year head coach, was poised to lift the Mastodons to their apex.

The rocky Summit League start slammed the brakes on any coronation. Finally, on Jan. 21 in Brookings, South Dakota, IPFW became galvanized at its core.

"I think there was an ‘enough is enough’ attitude," Coffman said. "We had a locker room meeting after that game that shook some guys. We came back with a more elevated level of urgency and intensity to practice. I felt the team manufacturing its own energy at a high level for the first time on our game-day shootaround for North Dakota State. I walked into the locker room and our guys were popping. It was something we’d been talking about for weeks."

It was the beginning of a current five-game win streak that has seen IPFW (13-11, 6-5 Summit) surge up the conference standings, from last to fourth and within three games of the first-place Bison. The Mastodons can continue their assault tonight at IUPUI (8-16, 4-6), which won in Fort Wayne in January.

During the uptick, IPFW defeated the Summit’s first,- second,- third- and fifth-place teams. Aside from a Feb. 21 trip to Fargo, where North Dakota State is unbeaten, IPFW’s remaining games are against the bottom half of the conference. Incredibly, it still has a path to the conference championship and is almost assured of a high seed in the Summit League tournament.

"There’s no easy game in our conference, so it’s been a battle," Coffman said. "(We’re) playing pretty confident now, but it can disappear quicker than you get it."

Toughness is a gene that defines all postseason teams, an arena IPFW hopes to occupy.

"Basketball is a game about runs," Forbes said. "We handled it like the veteran team we are. We have a bunch of guys who’ve been to the championship game in Sioux Falls.

"We got everyone together and said enough is enough. It’s been showing on the court. This is how IPFW basketball is supposed to be played."