ST. LOUIS —
Two years ago, Indiana State knocked Evansville out of the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament via a last-second shot.
On Friday? It was a last-second swat.
After Justin Gant made a free throw to put the Sycamores up one with two seconds left, Devonte Brown rejected a Ned Cox layup attempt at the buzzer Friday as ISU defeated Evansville 51-50 to advance to today’s semifinal round.
The Sycamores (18-13) will play No. 1-seeded Creighton at 2:35 p.m. EST today. The Bluejays pulled away from Drake to post a 65-53 victory in the opening quarterfinal game at Arch Madness.
It was a harrowing, but ultimately, uplifting finish for the Sycamores, who had lost five of six entering the contest.
It was ISU’s first victory over a MVC opponent since Feb. 9.
“We definitely needed this win. We knew it was going to be a fight. We knew we’d have to grind the whole time. It was punch-after-punch,” said ISU center Jake Kitchell.
In a game defined by its rough-and-tumble nature, ISU mined some unexpected diamonds.
The play of ISU’s bench shined brightest of all. ISU’s bench scored 30 of the Sycamores’ 51 points.
“[The bench] is the reason we won this game. They stepped up huge,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said. “These guys were relentless today. They made big plays after big plays.”
In addition to his last-second block, Brown led the Sycamores with 11 points, all scored in a five-minute burst to end the first half. It’s the first time the redshirt freshman has led ISU in scoring.
“Devonte saved us in the first half. There was no question. We were standing around stuck in mud. Devonte came in and was really aggressive getting to the paint,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Kitchell picked up the scoring mantle in the second half. The sophomore scored seven of his career-high nine points in less than three minutes early in the half to help ISU break away from the Aces.
“For him to lift us? I’m so happy for him. He’s a tremendous teammate. Even when he’s playing three or four minutes, he’s always been a positive influence,” Lansing said.
ISU’s also held Evansville star Colt Ryan to eight points overall — 12 below his season average — and more importantly, held Ryan scoreless in the second half (see related story).
Ryan made just 4 of 18 from the field. It was the first time in 20 games Ryan failed to reach double-figure scoring. Ryan didn’t attempt a free throw, the first time he’s failed to do so in 24 contests.
Overall, ISU played defense with far more aplomb and attentiveness. In an 84-68 loss to Evansville last Saturday, the Aces had 26 assists. On Friday, Evansville (18-14) managed just six.
“We defensively stuck it to them. We got back to playing defense like we had in the past and got the monkey off our back,” Kitchell said.
The game was a bump-and-grind defensive stalemate from tipoff. Evansville enjoyed the advantage for most of the first half, but it never led by more than four points.
Brown provided a spark for ISU starting at the 5:30 mark. He converted a layup to pull ISU within one and didn’t stop scoring. By the :55 mark, Brown had scored via a putback, a layup, a 3-pointer and two free throws to fuel 13-6 run to give ISU a 27-23 lead.
The Sycamores led by two at the break despite no points from either Odum or reinstated Manny Arop in the first half.
“We really weren’t patient the first 10 minutes of the game. When I got in, if I wasn’t patient, I was coming right out,” said Brown on his spurt. “Guys were going to Gant, guys were going to Odum, so they’re leaving open lanes for me and everyone else.”
After Evansville sliced its deficit to one, Kitchell got ISU going. He provided seven of the points in a 12-3 run that helped ISU take a 44-34 lead with 10:56 left.
“We were doing a screen-and-roll thing. It was trying to find the open spaces and they found me in stride. It’s easy when guys find you inside,” Kitchell said.
ISU would only make two more field goals for the remainder of the game, and by the 6:18 mark, a 14-2 run helped Evansville take a 48-46 lead.
It was 50-50 by the 3:05 mark, but neither team could close the deal. ISU had a stretch of five consecutive empty possessions, but Ryan turned it over once and missed a pair of shots that could have put the Aces in front.
With 22.8 seconds left, Evansville had its best chance to take the lead as Troy Taylor was fouled on a backdoor cut. Taylor missed both free throws and ISU had a chance to play for the last shot.
It didn’t come to that. Instead, Gant was fouled by Egidijus Mockevicius with 2.5 left. Gant missed his first free throw, but drained the next to give ISU the lead.
Crafty Evansville elected to lob the ball into its own half. The Aces tipped the ball at the top of the key and guard Ned Cox recovered it and drove to the basket.
Brown, who originally had defended Ryan off the inbounds pass, slipped to the baseline and blocked Cox’s attempt at the buzzer.
“I thought we were beat. My heart was about to fall out of my chest,” Lansing said. “The basketball gods were watching and Devonte saved us.”
ISU had anticipated the tip play, but didn’t defend it correctly. Brown saved the day.
“We had a breakdown and somebody had to make a play. I just sprinted and got there and got the block. That’s all it really was. It was just a breakdown,” Brown said.
A “breakdown” that has ISU playing in a MVC Tournament semifinal for the second time in three seasons.
INDIANA STATE (51) — Arop 1-6 2-2 4, Mahurin 3-6 2-5 10, Cummings 0-3 2-2 2, Odum 2-8 0-1 5, K. Smith 0-2 0-0 0, Kitchell 4-4 1-2 9, Eitel 1-3 0-0 3, Gant 3-8 1-2 7, Brown 4-7 2-2 11. Totals 18-47 FG, 10-16 FT, 51 TP.
EVANSVILLE (50) — Mockevicius 4-5 3-3 11, Taylor 4-7 1-3 9,. Ryan 4-18 0-0 8, Wing 0-3 1-2 1, Cox 2-7 0-0 5, Sawvell 0-0 0-0 0, Nelson 0-0 0-0 0, Jones 2-7 2-2 6, Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Balentine 4-8 0-0 10. Totals 20-56 FG, 7-10 FT, 50 TP.
Halftime score — ISU 27-25. 3-point goals — ISU 5-16 (Mahurin 2-5, Eitel 1-3, Odum 1-2, Brown 1-2, Arop 0-2, Cummings 0-2), UE 3-11 (Balentine 2-3, Cox 1-3, Ryan 0-3, Jones 0-2). Rebounds — ISU 35 (Gant 6, Brown 6, Mahurin 5, Kitchell 5, Team 4, Arop 3, Odum 3, Eitel 2, Cummings), UE 34 (Taylor 10, Mockevicius 7, Balentine 4, Team 4, Ryan 4, Jones 2, Cox, Sawvell, Nelson), Assists — ISU 10 (Odum 4, Brown 2, Arop, Cummings, Eitel, Gant), UE 6 (Cox 2, Taylor, Ryan, Wing, Balentine), Steals — ISU 3 (Cummings 3), UE 6 (Mockevicius 3, Wing 2, Ryan), Blocks — ISU 3 (Mahurin, K. Smith, Brown), UE 2 (Mockevicius), Turnovers — ISU 11 (Arop 3, Odum 2, Brown 2, Mahurin, Cummings, Kitchell, Eitel), UE 7 (Ryan 3, Taylor 2, Mockevicius, Wing), Total fouls — ISU 12, UE 14. A — 14,567 (first two games of session).
Next — ISU (18-13) plays Creighton (25-7) at 2:35 p.m. today in a MVC Tournament semifinal game. Evansville (18-14) will await its postseason fate.