By Peyton Wesner
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — “Funny thing is, Matt Bohannon told me after our game they beat us in (in Evansville), ‘I would say it’s the last time I’ll be playing you, but we both know I’ll see you Sunday.'”
—Evansville Purple Aces’ superstar D.J. Balentine The black and yellow of Shocker Nation had exited Scottrade Center in a fit of anger and disgust before the second seed at this year’s Missouri Valley Conference, the Evansville Purple Aces, faced off with in-state rival Indiana State.
It wasn’t competitive.
Attacking as a lion on a gazelle, Evansville jumped out to an immediate 5-0 lead before possessing a 15-point edge heading into halftime and moving on to “Arch Madness‘” championship game by the score of 68-42.
From the get-go, everyone in attendance could see the passion and determination the Purple Aces were playing with as they nailed their first three shots while surging to an 8-2 advantage.
Although the Sycamores’ backcourt trio of Khristian Smith, Devonte Brown, and Brenton Scott did not permit their opponent to swiftly pull ahead to a ten-point lead right out of the gates, Evansville’s Blake Simmons indvidually carried his team with a monumental 5-0 spurt, which ultimately produced a 9-point gap.
Furthermore, 2015-16 MVC 6th Man of the Year Mislav Brzoja drained a triple to push the Purple Aces advantage to double-figures.
It never returned to single-digits.
Continuing to throw points on the scoreboard, D.J. Balentine sent his team to the locker room up 37-22 by chipping in 10 of his team-high 14 points during the final 7:05 of the first half.
Adam Wing, getting the party started in the second twenty minutes, drew a foul on Khristian Smith and made a pair of free throws, which in turn comenced a 9-4 shuffle that increased the advantage to 20 immediately following the first media timeout.
If one must pinpoint the final cut to the jugular for the Sycamores, it was no doubt the third triple from Blake Simmons at the 14:08 mark (51-28 UE).
The biggest deficit Indiana State faced on the night was 30 with 5:14 remaining in the bout.
Third Time’s a Charm?
This season, the Northern Iowa/Evansville season series has been the most exciting and closest of any head-to-head matchuo between any two teams in the Missouri Valley Conference. In fact, the two showdowns were decided by a total of 5 points (@ UNI was a 3-point game and @ Evansville was a 2-point contest)!
Yet, the Purple Aces were defeated in both.
The conference’s leading scorer D.J. Balentine was frustrated in both arenas, for he was held to a season-low 9 points in Cedar Falls in addition to being contained to 7-of-17 shooting and 19 points at the Ford Center.
“We’ll have to go back and study it a little bit harder” said Evansville Purple Aces’ head coach Marty Simmons when asked about what changes can be made for Balentine to have even greater success against one of the best defensive teams in the league. “I know one area is we’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. That’s something I thought was a real key today.”
D.J. Balentine, one of four UE players in double-figures concluded today’s semi-final with 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists. Jaylon Brown had a similar statline of 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists while Blake Simmons totaled 13 on the offensive end and Mislav Brzoja had 10. Sunday’s champioship game time is at 2 PM EST.
He Said It (Part I)
“It’s still hard to wrap our minds around that tomorrow we’re playing for a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament. This is something I know me and D.J., and the rest of the guys, have dreamed about since we were kids. Having the opportunity tomorrow, it’s a lifelong dream we’ve had. We’re excited for it. We can’t wait. We’re really excited for the opportunity.”
—Blake Simmons on the feeling of being 40 minutes and one win away from the NCAA Tournament.
He Said It (Part II)
“Yeah, I told him I loved him. We grew up together. We played basically our whole life together. I told him I was really happy for him and real proud of him. He told me the same and to go get it tomorrow, that he’ll be watching, that I deserve one.”
—D.J. Balentine on the last on the cour conversation was his great friend Khristian Smith.
He Said It (Part III)
“Having him see two or three guys, making him not being able to see open lanes to the rim, just jabbing at him and getting back to the shooters because they’ve got great shooters on their team.”
—Blake Simmons on the game plan for guarding the athletic Wes Washpun.
He Said It (Part IV)
“Evansville is a unique place” said head coach Marty Simmons. “The players at Evansville, a lot of them go back to the 1950s, and they stay in touch. They come to a lot of games. They e-mail. They write. That’s, I think, pretty unique. And those guys like to see our guys be successful. They’re our biggest cheerleaders.”
He Said It (Part V)
“Both of us (Khristian Smith and Devonte Brown) are 1,000 point scorers. We try to be leaders every day on the court for Coach” said Indiana State senior Khristian Smith. “You go out, and you’re in a grocery store, and you’ve got a little kid that sees you. That’s one thing I am going to miss. People out in the community loves you.“