NORMAL, Ill. — Postseason basketball: a new season for all.
Although it was not in the tournament they desired, Illinois State clubbed UC Irvine in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, 85-71. In a performance that featured the Redbirds shooting 52% from beyond the arc, seniors Deontae Hawkins and Paris Lee scored 22 and 13 points, respectively, to advance their home winning streak to 22 games.
“Some guys were like, ‘Man, I’m grateful we’re here but this is not the NCAA Tournament,'” said Lee of the group’s mentality after Selection Sunday. “Once we got settled in practice, everyone was like, ‘We might as well win it while we’re doing it.'”
Both squads shot three-pointers well. Senior guards Deontae Hawkins and Luke Nelson nailed a total of five three-pointers in the opening 4:30 to ignite their separate offenses.
“I just wanted to play hard for my teammates, for the coaches and for the community,” said Hawkins, who made six-of-six triples on the night. “I just want to thank my teammates for finding me and getting me good looks. I was just confident enough to make the shot.”
A converted alley-oop, Paris Lee to Daouda N’Diaye, exploded the already rocking Red Sea of five-thousand-plus while supplying the Redbirds a five-point edge.
Sophomore guard Keyshawn Evans soon found his shooting stroke, reeling off five consecutive points to continue to move the lead. D.J. Clayton’s triple at the 9:57-mark soared the margin to double-figures.
Three turnovers and one point in five minutes overwhelmed the Anteaters in the waning moments of the first half. UC Irvine’s struggling stretch allowed Illinois State to go on an 11-1 burst and extend the gap to a half-high 16 points.
However, UC Irvine, as they started the half, received a lift on three three-pointers, which silenced the home faithful and pulled the Big West Conference regular season champions within nine.
“The two guards were hurting us pretty bad. Coach told us, ‘It’s a challenge,'” said Lee. “I feel like we stepped up to the challenge the right way.”
Illinois State won the opening four minutes. Thanks to a triple by each member of “The Big Three,” the lead advanced to a game-high 18 points.
Though, the Anteaters refused to go away. Two three-pointers by Jaron Martin and ten consecutive UC Irvine points cut the gap to 58-50. Furthermore, three more of the senior’s game-high 24 points dwindled the deficit to a new low of six. Would another NIT top seed fall?
Hawkins stunted his opponent’s momentum with a corner three-pointer on the ensuing possession.
“I didn’t see any panic in our faces,” said Redbirds’ head coach Dan Muller. “I didn’t see any bad body language or doubt in our minds any time they came back.”
A little over a minute later, the senior from Dayton, Ohio, drilled his final three — a dagger with 9:52 remaining.
“It’s easy to get assists when you have somebody throwing the rock in the ocean,” said Lee as Hawkins laughed. “There was a lot of good basketball today.”
UC Irvine never broke through the double-digit deficit again.
No, it was not on a neutral site as expected, but Illinois State had their first postseason victory of 2017.
Anteaters’ seniors Jaron Martin and Luke Nelson both surpassed their season scoring averages. Martin had 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting (5-of-10 from downtown) while Nelson was one assist shy of a double-double with 17 points and 9 assists.
Hawkins and Lee were two of four double-digit scorers for Illinois State. Hawkins finished with 22 points and 5 rebounds while the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year stuffed the stat-sheet with 13 points and 7 rebounds. Sophomore Phil Fayne netted 11 points and grabbed 7 rebounds as his front-court mate, MiKyle McIntosh, was two rebounds shy of a double-double — he had 13 points and 8 rebounds.
28-6 Illinois State will host seven-foot, six-inch center Tacko Fall, former Redbird Nick Banyard and the UCF Knights on Monday at Redbird Arena. Muller looks forward to the challenge.
“Tacko doesn’t get into foul trouble — hardly ever,” Muller said. “It’s going to be unique. You can’t practice against that. We’re going to have to make some shots again.
“They’re playing their best basketball. I watched them play some recently because I like watching Nick and see how he’s doing.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST