ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Illinois State sophomore Keyshawn Evans said he liked the rims inside Scottrade Center.
It showed on Friday afternoon.
Propelled by 15 points from Evans and a 19-point, 5-rebound, 2-assist performance by senior Deontae Hawkins, the Redbirds (26-5, 17-1) fought off pesky Evansville (16-17, 6-12), 80-69.
Bench production decided the contest. Illinois State outscored Evansville 30-8 in the battle of subs.
“Credit to Evansville. I thought they played unbelievably hard,” said Illinois State head coach Dan Muller. “They competed (and) had to keep fighting back. (They) had to make some big plays down the stretch.”
As Thursday night, the Purple Aces jumped on their opponent out of the gates. Eighth-seeded Evansville ran ahead to a multi-possession lead before the first media timeout.
Sophomore Ryan Taylor instigated the charge. A bank triple and pull-up jumper by the Ohio University transfer jump-started the offense.
Seniors Christian Benzon and Jaylon Brown, with heart and production, supplied a 17-12 edge heading towards the ten-minute mark.
Then, the “Key and DJ Show” began.
Keyshawn Evans and DJ Clayton seized the spotlight, out-scoring Evansville 10-3.
“We went on a run when the bench was in,” Muller said. “Keyshawn Evans with a huge spark. I think he hit two threes. D.J. played extremely well during that stretch. They got us going.”
Deontae Hawkins soon joined the fun; he nailed a triple to push the advantage to eight.
Simmons’ squad refused to accept defeat, however. The senior-laden group traded punches with Illinois State prior to a MiKyle McIntosh ally-oop slam with 54 seconds remaining until halftime.
Redbird Nation was energized, and it sustained through halftime into the second half.
Although Evansville cut Illinois State’s 43-33 halftime advantage to six, the Redbirds caught a gust of wind from Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Paris Lee.
Lee, following a half in which he was held to two points, reeled off five consecutive points to push his team ahead by a game-high 14 points. The time was now for Illinois State to pull away.
But, they couldn’t.
Evansville senior Sergej Vucetic, who has overcome great adversity this season, put his fingerprint on the game with back-to-back field goals. Furthermore, Taylor tossed in a two to pull within seven at the 13:14-mark.
“Sergej had to go through something you hope nobody ever has to go through,” said Evansville head coach Marty Simmons. “He played great today.”
Similar to the burst Evans and Clayton had, Jaylon Brown and Benzon started to trade with the Redbirds. The senior duo, in likely their last collegiate game, sliced the deficit down to six.
Yet, the Redbirds were too much.
Illinois State never allowed Evansville to pull within three — the closest the Purple Aces came was four with 53 seconds — and made seven-of-eight free throws in the final minute.
The Redbirds were now two wins away from achieving the goal they set at the beginning of the season.
Frustrated by childhood friend Tony Wills, Jaylon Brown was held to 24 points on an anemic 7-of-25 shooting. The senior also had 4 rebounds and 4 assists to complete a season in which averaged over 20 points per game.
“Anytime we play, I know he’s going to try to compete against me,” said Brown. “He’s always been like that. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s always been real handsy and gets his hands on the ball.”
Fellow seniors David Howard and Christian Benzon also scored in double-figures. Howard shot 7-of-12 from the field and scored 14 points to go along with 7 rebounds while Benzon finished with a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds.
“They’re just awesome, awesome young men. I mean, on the court, off the court, in the classroom,” said Marty Simmons of Brown, Howard, and Benzon. “They’re gentlemen, and they represent our program, the university, and our community in a first class — every one of them.
“They’ve all battled adversity at one time or another throughout their career. They’ve never quit. They’ve never given in.”
Individually, Illinois State had four scorers post double-figures. Seniors Deontae Hawkins and Paris Lee had 19 and 13 points, respectively. Lee facilitated 7 assists and grabbed 3 rebounds to complement his scoring. Keyshawn Evans and D.J. Clayton had 28 of the Redbirds’ 30 bench points.
As a unit, Illinois State set an Arch Madness and school record for blocks in a game. Muller’s group had a total of 14; Daouda Ndiaye and Phil Fayne swatted four apiece.
Tomorrow, #1 Illinois State will seek to push their winning streak to eight against the winner of #4 Southern Illinois and #5 Loyola. College Court Report will have full coverage from St. Louis.
– P. Wesner