NORMAL, Ill. — 11 days.
Arch Madness, also known as the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, is just 11 days away, but before the action heads to St. Louis, Illinois State and Loyola had business to settle at Redbird Arena.
And, the action did not disappoint.
Concluding the season series between two of Illinois’ best, the Redbirds fended off the pesky Ramblers, 65-63. A pair of Deontae Hawkins free throws gave Illinois State the lead prior to Ben Richardson’s half court heave rimming out at the horn.
“I feel lucky that we won, to be honest,” said Illinois State head coach Dan Muller. “Obviously, one inch or another and we don’t win.
“We got to start playing better.”
A sea of 8,052 was rocking from the tip. Surged by six from senior Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State flew out to an 8-2 lead.
The Ramblers came racing back, sprinting on a 12-6 mini-run. Three free throws from Donte Ingram tied the contest at 14 with 10:24 remaining.
Although two consecutive triples by Tony Wills, re-upped the advantage to six, Cameron Satterwhite and Milton Doyle swiftly evened the contest with six unanswered.
However, Wills was red-hot and he drilled his third three-pointer in a span of three minutes. Furthermore, Paris Lee found Daouda Ndiaye with a lob that was slammed through, igniting the home faithful. Additionally, Lee swished one from beyond the arc, supplying an eight-point edge.
Three minutes into the second half, Illinois State increased their lead to a game-high 11. The contest looked to be getting away from Loyola.
But Porter Moser’s squad refused to lick their wounds and concede. Instead, Doyle, Ingram, and the Ramblers displayed heart and fight — so much so that they pulled within two possessions at the 12:20-mark and caused a fourth tie with 5:48 left.
Aundre Jackson and Doyle were instrumental in the comeback. The dynamic duo combined for 12 points in the 12-minute stretch.
“I’m really proud of our guys. They showed this resiliency all year,” said Loyola head coach Porter Moser. “They believe. I love the character of this group.”
Returning Wednesday at Missouri State, MVC Player of the Year candidate MiKyle McIntosh still looked unsteady. The junior had meniscus surgery and was starting his first game since this afternoon. Though, during the final stretch, the 6’7″ power forward was vintage McIntosh.
The Canadian, when his team needed it most, made two three-pointers to replenish the once double-figures margin to five.
“That was big time. They weren’t easy shots either. One is from about 23-feet and one is a step back,” said Muller. “That was just a big-time player making big-time plays.”
Not surrendering, Jackson, with a triple, and Doyle, with a jumper, tied the game for a fifth and final time.
As each second evaporated in the final two minutes, the crowd became more restless. The Redbirds failed to convert on three three-pointers while the Ramblers’ Clayton Custer missed a trey for the lead.
Paris Lee dribbled the ball near the beak of the bird. He was organizing the offense for a final opportunity at victory. Lee passed the ball off to DJ Clayton.
Clayton then dropped it off to McIntosh at the top of the key.
McIntosh found Hawkins in the post and the latter turned to face the basket.
Five…The whistle blew.
In a questionable whistle, Doyle was called for a foul. Illinois State was in the bonus, meaning Hawkins would have a chance to give the Redbirds the lead from the charity stripe.
“I have to be careful because Milton Doyle means a lot to me,” Moser said. “A fact is we have gotten three fouls under four seconds, either tied or up, away from the ball. That’s a fact. That’s frustrating.”
Hawkins stepped up to the free throw line with the weight of a perfect home record and a 14-1 conference record.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Illinois State. I don’t want to take a single thing,” Moser said. “Do you know how hard it is for Hawkins to step up and make those free throws? Let’s everyone be real.
“You don’t want to lose to us. Hawkins knows that.”
Swish! Swish! He made them both.
Unlike nearly three years ago when Milton Doyle made a historic three-pointer in St. Louis, the ball found the hands of Clayton Custer. Custer passed it back to a streaking Richardson.
Richardson had a perfect look and fired a long game-winning attempt.
The ball soared through the air while all of Redbird nation held its breath.
“You just got to pray. I said a quick prayer,” said Illinois State’s Paris Lee, looking to the ceiling as he revealed his thoughts in the final seconds. “I was a little nervous. It was a good shot — good look.”
The ball fell harmlessly to the hardwood and the Redbirds survived.
Loyola’s Milton Doyle and Aundre Jackson had 17 points apiece. Jackson was 7-of-10 from the field and grabbed 6 rebounds while Doyle was 5-of-13 with 5 rebounds and 4 assists. As Doyle did make big shots for the Ramblers, the Redbirds blanketed him.
“We know Milton Doyle. We watched a lot of film on him. He’s an excellent player,” Lee said of preparing for the Loyola star. “Credit to T-Wills. Tony, he did a great job.
Picking up his fifth double-double of the season, Deontae Hawkins finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. He was extremely efficient, shooting 7-of-9 from the floor. Paris Lee was a point and assist shy of a double-double; he had 9 points and 9 rebounds.
Most of the talk postgame surrounded McIntosh. The junior appeared to re-injury his right knee on the final play. Dan Muller had little update on one/third of his team’s “Big Three.”
“He did something the very last play,” Muller said. “I assume he will be okay.”
McIntosh contributed 13 points and 5 rebounds.
17-12 (7-9) Loyola will play Drake in Milton Doyle’s final home game on Wednesday. Their regular season finale is in Carbondale versus Southern Illinois on February 25.
“I’m hurting for them. They left it on the floor,” said Moser. “I thought our guys came in here and played great. They played their tails off.”
23-5 (15-1) Illinois State remains tied with Wichita State atop “The Valley.” The Redbirds host Southern Illinois on Wednesday before traveling to play Northern Iowa on Saturday.
College Court Report will have full coverage from Normal, Illinois, for Paris Lee, Deontae Hawkins, and Tony Wills’ Senior Night.
– P. Wesner