Eleven minutes into the first half, slow-starting Indiana State was down six to host Evansville and needed something good to happen.
The Sycamores were fortunate. They had two good things happen for them almost simultaneously.
First, Khristian Smith heated to a boil and never cooled down on his way to an 11 of 13, 27-point effort. Second, ISU began to make Evansville scorer D.J. Balentine work much harder for shots after he had an easy 12 points in the first 11 minutes.
The combination of both made it a good night for ISU at Evansville's Ford Center. The Sycamores imposed their will on the Purple Aces for an 81-62 victory and remained unbeaten in Missouri Valley Conference play.
"We've been road-tested. We were on the road for a month during the nonconference season. There's no tougher place to play than Evansville. This was an important win for us. Our veterans stepped up against a team of younger guys," ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Smith was incandescent, but no stretch was more important than a red-hot last seven minutes of the first half. Evansville led 22-16 at the 8:49 mark, but Smith scored 12 of his 13 first-half points in the final 7:56 of the half.
"I've been saying it for the longest time that I just need to come out and be aggressive. The past couple of games, shots hadn't fallen, but I saw a few go in and that gets me going," Smith said.
Evansville coach Marty Simmons knew the challenge his young Purple Aces would face if Smith was able to get going.
"We were well aware of him. He's a tough matchup. He can shoot the three. He's quick off the dribble and he can take you to the post. He's good in transition and he's good on the glass. We certainly respected him. He was good last year, but he's playing with more confidence this year," Simmons said.
Once Smith got going, the rest of the Sycamores (11-3, 2-0) followed suit. Dawon Cummings had a career-high 22 points. Jake Odum scored 14 and was 9 of 12 at the line.
Justin Gant had 10 points and seven rebounds despite suffering from stomach flu. Jake Kitchell had seven rebounds.
It was a team victory and the defense on the vastly-improved Balentine was perhaps the best evidence of that.
Balentine -- averaging 22.6 points per game -- could do no wrong in the first 11 minutes as he drained one jump shot after another to stake Evansville to an early six-point advantage. But once ISU began to close Balentine down, sometimes by sending two defenders at him, but sometimes not, the scoring for the talented sophomore dried up.
Balentine didn't score a field goal in the first half after the 9:50 mark. He had just three buckets in the second half -- two came late when both team's fates were assured. He finished with 23 points, but was quiet after his early surge.
"We wanted to take him out of his catch-and-shoot rhythm. It's hard when he's coming off so many good screens," Cummings said. "We wanted to make him dribble it and make him make a play off the dribble and make someone else make a play."
ISU did indeed force Balentine to penetrate the lane just far enough for him to get into trouble. ISU usually didn't help off of Balentine's teammates and he was often left with no passing option in the lane.
"Khristian Smith did a great job defensively on me and there was no help [defense]. They played really good team defense in the gaps," Balentine said.
Smith had two bursts where he scored five points in a row for the Sycamores in his red-hot first half. He also ended the first half with a fling toward the basket on an offensive rebound at the buzzer. It found the net to give ISU a 35-31 halftime lead.
"I didn't feel like everything was going to fall going into the game, but that one at half? When I hit it, I knew this day might be something special," Smith said.
Evansville stayed within range of the Sycamores until a 10-2 run near the midway point of the second half -- fueled in part by a pair of Evansville turnovers ISU turned into points -- helped ISU increase its lead to 56-44. Smith also had five points in the rally.
But the key stretch came after that. Evansville (7-8, 0-2) couldn't take advantage of an ISU drought when it went without a field goal from the 11:29 to 5:41 mark. ISU's lead remained the same after that stretch and the Sycamores pulled away once the offense got back on-track.
It was a testament to an improved defensive effort and proved that the Sycamores can maintain defensive intensity without having success from the field on the other end.
"There's going to be those nights where your shot doesn't fall and your base has to be your good solid defense. You have to continue to get stops and throw together several in a row. We were able to do that," Lansing said.
ISU's ability to maintain its double-digit lead once it got the margin to that point was a welcome development and something the Sycamores had been looking for.
"Sometimes we have a letdown during the game. We wanted to push forward and keep our foot on the gas a little bit," Cummings said.
The game was not completely free of concern for the Sycamores. Starting guard Devonte Brown played just 10 minutes as he was hampered by a hip pointer suffered on Friday.
Brown didn't start the second half as he stretched out behind the ISU bench. He played three minutes early in the second half, but Lansing held him out for the remainder of the contest.
ISU next travels to Drake on Wednesday. The Bulldogs fell to 1-1 in the MVC after a 67-58 loss at Bradley on Saturday.
INDIANA STATE (81) -- Gant 3-8 2-2 10, D. Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Arop 2-9 0-0 4, D. Brown 0-1 0-2 0, Odum 2-6 9-12 14, Kitchell 1-2 0-2 2, Eitel 0-0 0-0 0, Cummings 7-10 6-6 22, Burnett 1-2 0-0 2, Smith 11-13 2-4 27, Bell 0-0 0-0 0. 27-52 FG, 19-28 FT, 81 TP.
EVANSVILLE (62) -- Simmons 2-6 0-0 6, Mockevicius 2-5 2-4 6, Gibson 0-4 0-0 0, Wing 3-7 0-0 7, Balentine 8-15 5-6 23, Benzon 1-2 2-4 4, J. Brown 0-1 0-0 0, J. Moore 4-5 6-8 14, Ptacek 0-0 0-0 0, Howard 1-1 0-2 2. 21-46 FG, 15-24 FT, 62 TP.
Halftime -- ISU 35-31. 3-point goals -- ISU 8-16 (Smith 3-3, Gant 2-6, Cummings 2-3, Odum 1-1, Arop 0-2, Burnett 0-1) UE 5-10 (Simmons 2-4, Balentine 2-3, Wing 1-3). Rebounds -- ISU 34 (Gant 7, Kitchell 7, Odum 6, Smith 6, Arop 3, Moore 2, Brown, Burnett, Team), UE 26 (Mockevicius 10, Simmons 4, Team 3, Wing 2, Balentine 2, Benzon 2, Moore 2, Gibson). Assists -- ISU 11 (Odum 4, Arop 3, Cummings 2, Gant, Smith) UE 14 (Simmons 5, Balentine 5, Gibson 2, Mockevicius 1, Brown 1). Steals -- ISU 7 (Cummings 2, Moore, Brown, Odum, Eitel, Smith) UE 5 (Mockevicius 2, Gibson, Wing, Moore). Blocks -- ISU 5 (Cummings 2, Gant, Kitchell, Smith), UE 1 (Mockevicius). Turnovers -- ISU 13 (Arop 3, Moore 2, Odum 2, Smith 2, Gant, Brown, Cummings, Burnett), UE 15 (Simmons 3, Balentine 3, Benzon 3, Brown 2, Mockevicius, Gibson, Wing, Ptacek). Total fouls -- ISU 18, UE 22. A -- 4,937.
Next -- ISU (11-3, 2-0) plays at Drake and Evansville (7-8, 0-2) plays host to Northern Iowa on Wednesday.
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