NORMAL, Ill. — Paris Lee made it clear on Sunday: He was not losing on Senior Night.
“I love our fans. They come out and support us and show us love,” said the Illinois State senior from Maywood, Illinois. “I can’t lose on Senior Night.”
The Redbirds, in a defensive struggle, finished the regular season a perfect 15-0 at home by defeating Southern Illinois, 50-46. Senior Tony Wills netted 16 points while sophomore Phil Fayne recorded his third career double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds.
“[We] had big plays down the stretch, again,” said Illinois State head coach Dan Muller, who captured his 100th career win in the process. “Our defensive numbers were great. It’s pretty cool to be a part of the first team to go undefeated in Redbird Arena history.”
The Redbirds were as red hot as their uniforms at the start. Wills nailed back-to-back three-pointers to light a fire.
Sophomore Keyshawn Evans took the torch by making a triple himself, extending the advantage to 16-10.
Southern Illinois came sprinting back, however. The Salukis caused three consecutive turnovers from Lee, which spurred an 8-0 burst and supplied a two-point edge.
A pair of made field goals, one from Wills and another by Evans, seized back the lead for the Redbirds with just over four minutes remaining until halftime.
As the first half, Illinois State had their touch in the opening moments of the second. A 9-1 surge, capped by a Fayne layup, created a game-high 10-point lead. It was fight or flight for Barry Hinson’s Dawgs.
“Just stay in the game,” Southern Illinois head coach Barry Hinson told his team down ten. “I just kept telling them, ‘Don’t panic. Don’t panic.’ It looked like it worked tonight. [I’ll] try it again maybe.”
Shooting lulls wither leads. And, that’s exactly what happened to the Redbirds.
One made field goal over ten minutes allowed the Salukis to run ahead by three. A Sean O’Brein layup at the 8:19 mark shot Southern Illinois up 39-38.
A red sea of 6,545 began to grow restless. Would the pursuit for the first undefeated home season in school history end in defeat?
Eight straight points, all of which came from seniors Paris Lee, Tony Wills, and Deontae Hawkins, ignited the home faithful.
Yet, the game was anything but over.
Despite trailing by seven with 3:23 remaining, the Salukis were within two in the final 90 seconds. Though, Fayne’s 15th rebound and 10th and 11th points thrust Illinois State ahead 50-46.
“It was really important,” said Fayne on sending the seniors out victorious. “I love my senior class. It’s like the greatest set of leaders you have in the country.”
Illinois State’s defense, which held Southern Illinois to 39.1 percent shooting, sealed the victory. The Salukis’ last three possessions was a missed triple, blocked layup, and turnover.
15-0 never felt so good.
Southern Illinois’ frontcourt duo of Sean O’Brien and Thik Bol had their pawprint on this one. Both forward grabbed 7 rebounds while Bol posted 12 points and O’Brien finished with 11. The latter facilitated 4 assists.
Just three Redbirds’ had double-figure point totals. Tony Wills stuffed the stat-sheet for 16 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, and 1 block. Phil Fayne produced 11 points to go along with 15 rebounds.
“Man, he was a beast tonight,” said Wills of Fayne. “He gave us great energy.”
Floor general Paris Lee had a 10-point, 3-rebound, 3-assist performance. MiKyle McIntosh, on the other hand, was held scoreless one game following him re-injuring his knee.
Thankfully, Muller indicates his forward is progressing.
“20 [minutes] is right around where I want [him] right now. Eventually, that will go up,” said Muller of McIntosh’s playing time. “He’s getting healthier.”
15-15 (8-9) Southern Illinois is tied for fourth place in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Salukis conclude the regular season when hosting Loyola in Carbondale.
24-5 (16-1) Illinois State is one win away from clinching at least a share of the conference’s regular season championship. The Redbirds travel west for a battle with third placed Northern Iowa. If the Birds leave Cedar Falls victorious, they will capture the first regular season championship since 1991.
“I feel we are pretty confident,” said Wills. “We just going to take it one game at a time. We gonna watch film and get better.”
– P. Wesner