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March 8, 2014

ISU headed to MVC title game

Sycamores to play unbeaten Wichita State

ST. LOUIS — No one said advancing to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game was going to be easy.

When No. 2-seeded Indiana State had to go through pesky nemesis Southern Illinois in a Saturday semifinal to get there, the above adage took on extra meaning.

So it was. It was tough, tense and down-to-the-wire.

That tension wasn't released until the bitter end and it was the Sycamores who could breathe a sigh of relief. ISU held off a game SIU team in a 62-59 victory at Scottrade Center.

A Khristian Smith tip-in with 8 seconds left gave ISU breathing room and SIU's Desmar Jackson missed an off-balance 3-point attempt at the buzzer to keep the Sycamores alive at Arch Madness.

The Sycamores' heart never stopped beating, but it was Jake Odum that provided the lifeblood. The senior guard led all scorers with 20 points and carried ISU at times, especially in the second half.

The Terre Haute native played with demonstrative purpose, sometimes playing to the crowd after a big bucket, or keeping his teammates calm by taking responsibility when a play went wrong.

"You get the ball in his hands and basically clear out and say, 'Jake, go make all the plays, win every game for us.' I've gotten a little bit spoiled on that. Certainly, more often than not, he does that," ISU coach Greg Lansing said.

Another Terre Haute native provided brawn in the lane. Justin Gant had 13 points and three rebounds and gave the Sycamores a presence in the lane they needed against a physical SIU defense.

"It's tournament time, so you lose and go home," Gant said. "That's been really heavy on my mind. We have a great group of guys and great leadership coming from our seniors. I just wanted to go out and play my hardest for them and just give it my all."

ISU's defense kept SIU from getting comfortable. SIU swingman Desmar Jackson, who has tormented the Sycamores on numerous occasions, even going back to his days at Wyoming, was held to a 1 of 10 performance from the field. He had eight points.

"Manny Arop was unbelievable on defense. He said, 'Coach, I don't care what I'm doing on offense. I'm just going to guard that way.' He did. He made it tough," Lansing said.

Repeating a pattern from its recent games, ISU started hot out of the gate. The Sycamores led 15-7 seven minutes into the game, but couldn't sustain its good start, and SIU led 16-15 by the 8:09 mark. The Salukis' lead peaked at five with 1:45 to go before ISU got untracked. ISU closed its gap to 30-29 by halftime.

The modest run ISU had to end the first half folded into an incandescent run by Odum to start the second. The ISU point guard scored the first seven points of the half to fuel an 11-0 ISU run that put the Sycamores up 36-30.

"I just wanted to be aggressive. It was a close game coming out of halftime. I wanted to look for it and get going to the rim. My teammates were doing a nice job moving on offense which was allowing me gaps to get in there," Odum said.

ISU never trailed after that point, and Odum would go on to score 17 of his 20 points in the second half, but it was never comfortable. SIU cut its deficit to three at the 9:06 mark, but ISU responded with a 9-5 rally to take a 57-50 lead with 4:49 left. That's as big as ISU's lead would get.

The tension mounted. SIU cut its deficit to two with 3:46 left and then to one with 44.3 seconds left after a pair of Jackson free throws. With an eight-second shot clock disparity with the game clock, ISU needed to have a productive possession to keep SIU at bay.

Smith made sure ISU did. Odum drew defenders and kicked the ball out to Gant at the top of the key. Gant's shot was off-line, but Smith flew in from the right side and tipped it in. ISU led 62-59 with 8 seconds left, and at worst, was looking at overtime.

It never came to that. ISU defended SIU's three shooters -- Jackson, Beane and Tyler Smithpeters tightly. Jackson had to take an off-balance and guarded 3-point attempt at the buzzer and it was too hard off the back of the rim.

"Indiana State did a great job. They switched five, and did a good job, and they even switched a switch. Greg [Lansing] had them ready to go and they really did a good job on it," SIU coach Barry Hinson said.

The Sycamores survived and will have the ultimate challenge today ... its third chance to knock off unbeaten Wichita State. With its definitive 67-42 victory over Missouri State in Saturday's other MVC Tournament semifinal, the Shockers joined the 1979 Sycamores as it reached the 33-0 threshold.

"We have a chance. We have a one-game season right now," Lansing said.

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