CHICAGO, Ill. — With four wins in two weeks, the Illinois State Redbirds were flying high into Joseph J. Gentile Arena this afternoon.
They departed from “The Windy City” at an even higher altitude.
In a game that Redbirds senior Paris Lee scored his 1,000th point, Illinois State snapped Loyola’s seven-game home winning streak, defeating the Ramblers, 81-59. Illinois State shot a season-best 57.1% on the day.
“That was the best offensive game we’ve played in a long time,” said Illinois State head coach Dan Muller to WJBC Sports following the game. “We had a terrific 40 minutes.”
Do not allow the final score to fool you, Loyola was competitive in the first half. Iowa State transfer Clayton Custer led the pack for the Ramblers, scoring 9 points in the first 12 minutes.
In fact, with a personal 5-0 spurt, Custer supplied Loyola with its biggest edge of the day, 22-17. However, momentum would soon shift.
Illinois State junior DJ Clayton has provided opportune lifts for Dan Muller’s team this season.
Sunday was no exception.
Clayton, scoring five of his nine points with the Redbirds’ trailing, tied the score at 26 and began a game-altering run with a triple.
Clayton’s three-pointer spurred a flawless four minutes for Illinois State. The Redbirds scored on five of their final six possessions to soar on a 16-2 run.
Defensively, the Redbirds kept their opponent out of the paint, making the Ramblers settle for jumpers and three-pointers by playing a 3-2 zone. Unlike the preceding moments, Loyola was unable to produce points.
“Our 3-2 zone and press obviously turned the tide,” said Muller. “We went to that zone, which we have worked on pretty hard even though we haven’t played it much at all [in games], [and] was so active. [We] forced tough contested shots. We were getting clean rebounds [and] got out in transition.”
While Milton Doyle tried to erase a 39-28 halftime deficit, Deontae Hawkins and Phil Fayne swiftly drove Illinois State to eight consecutive points. Hawkins, who made a layup and three-pointer in the segment, led all Redbirds with 16 points.
Down 54-33 at the 14:49 mark, the Ramblers failed to pull any closer than 19. Two more of Fayne’s nine points flew Illinois State to a game-high 27-point lead, 62-35.
The Redbirds made 10 three-pointers on the day. Yet, the best part of the afternoon didn’t come on the court, but in the stands.
“Our crowd was awesome. They always are up here in Chicago,” Muller said. “To have them right behind the bench cheering from tip to the buzzer was pretty cool.”
Loyola, who entered the contest with the fourth highest field goal percentage among Division I teams, was held 10% under their season average at 41.4%. Star senior Milton Doyle was frustrated, scoring just 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
“Probably four of his five makes were hard shots — tough, contested pull-ups over a hand,” Muller said of Doyle. “We’ve been so good at guarding the best player on the other team, scoring-wise.”
Ramblers’ leading scorer Aundre Jackson was also contained. The forward had just 5 points, which was 11 under his season average. Junior Clayton Custer scored a game-high 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting.
The Redbirds’ utilized a balanced scoring attack. 7 players finished with at least 7 points. Deontae Hawkins stuffed the stat-sheet with 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists while MiKyle McIntosh was one rebound away from a double-double with 14 points and 9 rebounds. Senior Paris Lee broke the 1,000-point plateau in a 7-point, 4-assist performance.
10-5 (0-2) Loyola has not started the conference season had hoped. Nevertheless, confidence is not lacking in Chicago. The Ramblers host Northern Iowa, who has also lost their first two MVC contests, on Wednesday.
Now with five wins in two weeks, the 10-4 (2-0) Redbirds will turn their sights to a conference showdown with Missouri State. The Bears are also undefeated in “The Valley” after two games. Wednesday night at Redbird Arena, two of the best point guards in the Missouri Valley Conference will be on display in Missouri State’s Dequon Miller and Illinois State’s Paris Lee. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. EST from Normal, Illinois.
– P. Wesner