DAVENPORT, Iowa — Gary Belger admitted he had never even paused to think about where his basketball program would be without Joe Wieskamp.
It wasn't necessary. In Belger's two years as the Muscatine head coach, Wieskamp had never even missed a practice, let alone a game.
So when the Muskies were forced to venture over to Davenport West on Friday night, leaving their star player at home with a severe case of the flu, Belger wasn't entirely sure what he was going to get.
What he got really wasn't all that bad.
The Muskies battled the bigger, deeper Falcons all the way, holding the lead for most of the first half before running out of gas in a 51-37 loss to begin the post-holiday portion of the Mississippi Athletic Conference schedule.
Jackson Foulk tossed in 18 points and Josh Hutton added 10 for Muscatine, which dropped to 5-2 in the MAC, 6-3 overall.
"With the players we had on the floor, I thought we handled ourselves very well," Belger said. "We just got tired in the second half. That hurt us more than anything.
"I was pleased with what we did," he added.
Belger said he didn't learn until mid-afternoon Friday that he wasn't going to have Wieskamp, who leads the state in scoring at 35.5 points per game and is second in rebounding at 15.3 per game. That didn’t leave much time to plan on how to cover for an Iowa recruit who scores 60 percent of the team’s points.
"If we had had a couple of days to practice like this, it would have helped," Belger said, "because almost everything we do goes through him."
If anything, Wieskamp's absence may have had as big an impact on the Falcons (6-3, 4-3 MAC).
"Our kids were so excited to play against him and when he wasn't here there was sort of a letdown," West coach Mark Bigler said. "To Muscatine's credit, they took advantage of that. They really played with a lot of heart and played really well in the first half."
The Muskies' zone defense held West without a field goal from the middle of the first quarter until the middle of the second quarter, and Hutton and Foulk hit enough shots to open a 21-10 lead.
But the Falcons turned up the defensive pressure and scored the last seven points of the half in a portent of what the second half would look like.
"We were able to find the intensity we needed to get back in the game," said West center Brett Erwin, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. "We finally started letting our defense create the offense."
The Falcons continued to pressure the Muskies in the second half, forcing six turnovers in each of the last two quarters and scoring the first 11 points of the half to take control.
Foulk scored 11 of the Muskies’ 16 second-half points to keep them fairly close but West began getting the ball inside to the 6-foot-9 Erwin and 6-7 Trey Sampson, who added 13 points.
"We got hurt by their big kids in the second half," Belger said. "We just couldn't keep them out of the lane."
Belger said he is hopeful that Wieskamp will be well enough to play Tuesday against Davenport Assumption. And, of course, he expects to have his 6-6 star back for a Feb. 9 rematch with West.
"We're looking forward to seeing them again," he said.