CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Augustana men's basketball team was shown plenty from which it could learn in Wednesday's 96-62 loss to the University of Illinois at the State Farm Center.
The setback in the exhibition game was as humbling as it was educational.
While there were numerous teaching moments that presented themselves against an improving 5-0 Illini team, the Vikings were also dealt another blow — albeit familiar — from which they might find it difficult to recover.
For the second straight season, the Vikings will have to figure out how to move forward without the services of standout Pierson Wofford.
On a drive to the basket late in the first half, the junior was bumped and came down awkwardly. He fell to the court and remained there for a couple of minutes, eventually having to be helped off to the locker room.
He was diagnosed by Illinois team doctors with a torn ACL in his left knee that will require surgery, ending his season.
“This is a tremendous blow for us,” senior captain Dylan Sortillo said. “Look at what Pierson has done in the first three games. Talent-wise and energy, it's going to be a lot to replace, but it's going to have to be next man up.”
“He's arguably our best player and the heart of the team,” said a visibly shaken Grey Giovanine, coach of the nationally second-ranked Vikings.
Wofford was playing like a man on a mission upon his return from last season's removal from the team by school administration and subsequent spring term out of school. He entered Wednesday's game averaging 14.7 points and a team-high 11.7 rebounds.
“It's big anytime a guy goes down like that, especially the type of guy Pierson is on and off the court; he's a competitor,” junior classmate Chrishawn Orange said. “To have the issues he had last year and coming back and having the year he was having, and having his season end like that is tough.”
It is a familiar situation for the Vikings.
When Wofford was removed from the team in January, the Vikings struggled for a bit down the stretch of the regular season. They hung tough for a few weeks, but lost their final three regular-season games on the road and had to settle for a CCIW championship share.
However, they caught fire at the right time and played their way into the NCAA Division III national championship game, ending a 24-9 season with a one-point setback to Babson in the title game.
Thoughts of a return trip to Salem, Va., may have taken a big hit Wednesday evening in the game that didn't count as a loss on Augie's record, but is nonetheless a loss bigger than expected.
The injury to a teammate and friend was still fresh as the Viking players were trying to put the situation into perspective and figure out how to move forward and keep alive their lofty goal and expectations. They think those goals remain intact.
"I believe so and that has to be the mentality for the whole team,” Sortillo said. "You hate to see him go down, but you have to believe that even without him … Someone is going to have to come in and play at the level Pierson was playing. We really need to fill that spot.”
So far, the Vikings haven't shown anyone able to do that. While the starters have played well, production from the reserves — minus some flashes from junior Brett Benning, who was averaging 6.3 ppg and 3.3 rebounds per game — has been lacking.
Filling that role will be tough. Finding a way to work around his absence is more the order.
“We're going to have to move some pieces around and make some adjustments and move forward,” said Giovanine, whose club enjoyed Thursday off before a scheduled late practice tonight ahead of hosting MacMurray at 3 p.m. Sunday.
What might those adjustments be?
“I don't know yet,” Giovanine said. “I'm not sure.”