EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Last season, the most influential senior class in recent memory departed from the University of Evansville.
Despite all the accomplishments and accolades, D.J. Balentine, Egidijus Mockevicius and Adam Wing were defeated on Senior Day by Northern Iowa.
The current group of seniors, all who endured last year’s loss, made sure the same fate would not ensue.
Evansville, propelled by seniors Jaylon Brown and David Howard, defeated Indiana State, 65-63. A pair of Brown free throws put the Purple Aces ahead while Sycamores’ star Brenton Scott missed a game-winning attempt wide left.
“It was the way we wanted to finish it,” said Evansville’s Jaylon Brown. “I wouldn’t want to have it any other way with these five seniors and the guys on this team. I’m just thankful to play with these guys.”
Both teams played sloppy initially. The two combined for 19 points in the first seven minutes.
Howard ignited the Purple Aces’ offense, scoring six consecutive points. Brown and fellow senior Christian Benzon took the baton; both made jumpers to cap a 10-0 run and supply an 18-9 lead.
“I just came out aggressive,” said Howard. “I just took my time in there and did the moves I wanted to.”
Moments later freshman Dru Smith, who was the star on Tuesday at Wichita State, sank a jumper to supply a game-high 11-point advantage. Momentum was fully seized by Evansville.
But it soon shifted.
Turnovers withered the Purple Aces’ mighty lead and spurred a 12-2 Indiana State growth.
“That’s kind of been our Achilles heel: We just can’t sustain good effort and good concentration,” said Simmons. “That will be our challenge as we prepare to go to St. Louis.”
A media timeout stopped a complete deterioration as a pair of Brown free throws sent Evansville to halftime up 30-25.
The Sycamores soon grabbed their first lead, however. Nine straight points, capped by an Everett Clemons layup, sprouted a 34-32 advantage with 17:19 left.
Although Brown quickly rectified the situation with five of his game-high 24 points, Evansville was never able to pull away from Indiana State.
The largest lead the Purple Aces could recover was seven with 4:46 remaining. Though, Evansville would hold just a three-point edge with under a minute in regulation.
The Sycamores found a wide-open Jordan Barnes in the corner for a game-tying attempt. His shot was short, but he drew the foul as the clock held 33 seconds.
Barnes, stepping to the charity stripe with three high-pressure free throws, had never been in such a situation during his freshman season. Nevertheless, he swished all three tries to create a new game.
On the ensuing possession, Evansville looked to none other than Brown. Brown caught the ball at the top of the key, drove left towards the basket, and lofted a floater.
The senior fell to the ground as the ball hit the back rim and did the same.
But, he was fouled.
The veteran stepped to the line and made both of his attempts.
“It just kind of worked out. Senior Day and JB being a senior,” said Simmons. “He has worked as hard and proved and built his game as much as any player that we have had here.
“He not only does a great job getting to the free throw line, he does a great job making free throws.”
With 2.2 seconds, the best attempt Indiana State mustered was a long three-pointer by Brenton Scott. His attempt was brutally off the mark.
Avenging last season’s defeat, Jaylon Brown, David Howard, and Christian Benzon won their final game in Evansville, Indiana.
The Sycamores, as a whole, struggled severely. They shot 36.1 percent for the game and no perimeter player shot over 50 percent.
T.J. Bell scored a team-high 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Jordan Barnes and Brenton Scott both scored 11 points apiece. Barnes was 3-of-9 from the floor while Scott shot 3-of-12.
Jaylon Brown was two rebounds shy of a double-double; he finished with 24 points and 8 rebounds. David Howard continued his high production in the paint with 14 points and 7 rebounds.
The trio of Christian Benzon, Dru Smith, and Solomon Hainna was the difference. They combined for 21 points, 16 rebounds, and 8 assists. Hainna, himself, scored 8 points in 9 minutes.
“I thought it was huge,” Simmons said of Hainna’s play. “He’s emotional and he plays extremely hard. He battled for loose balls. He got to the free-throw line.”
After two games decided by three total points, 11-19 (5-13) Indiana State and 6-12 (15-16) Evansville have their grudge-match set for Thursday in the opening game of Arch Madness. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. EST.
“They’re a tough team. They’re well coached. They have guys that know how to play,” Simmons said. “We need to improve. We will have to play better than we did today to have a chance.”
The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament begins on Thursday evening with a pair of first-round matchups. College Court Report will have full coverage live from the Scottrade Center.
– P. Wesner