But, there are no “gimmes” in “The Valley.”
Thanks to a dominant second-half from senior Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State, without MiKyle McIntosh, subdued Evansville, 69-59. The win flew the Redbirds to 10-0 in conference play, their best MVC start in school history.
“It was a really gritty win by our guys. [We were] short-handed [and] in foul trouble. Our defense was really solid tonight,” Illinois State head coach Dan Muller said. “I’m really proud of our guys.”
Similar to other games, Illinois State ascended to a double-digit lead. Three triples, one from Paris Lee, Tony Wills and Keyshawn Evans, pulled the Redbirds ahead, 14-3.
Evansville head coach Marty Simmons called a 30-second timeout to stop the bleeding.
It didn’t help.
Continuing the torrid stretch, Evans nailed another triple while Phil Fayne slammed home a monster dunk. The Ford Center was a silent church.
The silence grew even more depressing when Evansville’s Jaylon Brown, the MVC’s leading scorer, picked up his second foul less than 10 minutes in. A win did not seem in the cards.
Then the deck reshuffled.
Catching Dan Muller with sophomores Evans and Fayne sitting, the Purple Aces scored 11 unanswered to surge from behind. Defense was essential in the stretch; Evansville created three turnovers by swarming any guard penetrating into the paint.
As Evansville pulled within three, the Redbirds’ offense found a gust of wind. Lee assumed a more assertive role in the offense. Four of Lee’s 15 points helped rehydrate the advantage to eight at the 5:17-mark.
Again, however, the Purple Aces refused to wilt. Doubling the opposition, Evansville outscored Illinois State, 10-5, pulling within three heading into halftime.
With momentum shifted, a Jaylon Brown layup supplied Evansville with its first lead of the game.
22 seconds later it was gone.
Hawkins, who was scoreless in the first half, caught fire and scored eight of his 11 points in the first 5:03. Furthermore, Evans chipped in five of his 11 to turn a 1-point deficit into a 10-point edge.
“It was huge,” Muller said of the quick response. “It was back-and-forth as they kept it close in the first half. We just had a couple stretches where guys made big plays.”
The Purple Aces, despite trailing by double-figures, continued to threaten. After pulling the deficit to six with 10:56 left, Evansville found themselves down, 55-51, as they approached 5 minutes remaining.
Just as their only lead, hope of victory quickly faded.
Back-to-back three-pointers, one by Willis and another from Hawkins, were the final nails in the Purple Aces’ coffin. Hawkins, himself, had a sensational 40-second stint, in which he blocked a shot, made a triple, and knocked down a lob for a steal.
The Redbirds were 10-0.
“I’d love for this group to do a whole lot of things that my group didn’t do,” Muller reminisced of his playing days. “I think this team is committed to doing something special.”
Evansville superstar Jaylon Brown struggled. The senior was held to 17 points on 16 shot attempts.
“I’ll take that any day,” Muller said of containing Brown. “We talk about shooting percentages for [opponent’s] best players and we are pretty good at it.
“Tony Wills, as we have talked about, is one of the best defenders in the league. He did a great job on him.”
Purple Aces’ forward David Howard tied a career-high 16 points on a very efficient 6-of-7 shooting. Howard has played well of late; the 6’8″ senior is averaging 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in his past two contests.
Illinois State had four players in double-figures. Phil Fayne, recording the first double-double of his career, carried the frontcourt production normally shared with McIntosh. The 6’9″ sophomore scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds. The performance was his fourth in a row that he had produced 9 or more points.
“He’s relentless on them boards. He’s going!” said Hawkins, with a laugh, of his teammate. “People better watch out for their heads and their body because he’s knocking.”
Senior Paris Lee had a good afternoon as well. The floor general stat stuffed for 15 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals. Fellow senior Deontae Hawkins was two rebounds shy of a double-double with 11 points and 8 rebounds. Sophomore Keyshawn Evans nailed 3 triples and had 11 points.
“We got a lot of depth,” said Hawkins. “If somebody ain’t healthy enough, we got other guys that can come in and fill shoes. We did just that tonight.”
With the loss, 10-13 (1-9) Evansville has lost 8 straight. The post-DJ Balentine era has not been welcoming for the Purple Aces. Marty Simmons’ squad faces a team that is struggling just as much as his, Indiana State, on Wednesday.
18-4 (10-0) Illinois State will put their 11-game win streak on the line versus Northern Iowa Wednesday. The Panthers are one of the hottest teams in “The Valley” — second to only the Redbirds — and have won their last five.
Whether MVC Player of the Year candidate MiKyle McIntosh will play is not yet known.
“I really don’t know. I’m hopeful,” Muller said. “We got to get it checked out a little bit more.”
– P. Wesner