For about 10 minutes on Saturday at Evansville, Indiana State’s fans caught a glimpse of the team that had played its way into Missouri Valley Conference contention in early February.
Unfortunately for the Sycamores, it proved to be a mirage.
Evansville rode Colt Ryan’s 31-point effort to an 84-68 victory at the Ford Center. The Purple Aces shot 62.1 percent in the second half as ISU’s defensive performance was lacking.
That was galling to the Sycamores, who had wanted to recover the “grind” mentality that had served it so well earlier in the season. What happened instead is that the Sycamores were ground up by Evansville’s offensive attack.
“We weren’t really into it as a team [defensively]. Most people don’t understand what that means, but our flow to the ball wasn’t very good and our movement on the defensive end was a little slow,” said ISU point guard Jake Odum, who led the Sycamores with 20 points.
ISU lost its fifth game in six tries. ISU (17-13, 9-9) finished at .500 in the MVC after it was tied for first place on Feb. 12.
“The effort was better than it was on Wednesday [a 67-56 loss to Drake], but anything’s better than that. That’s a minimum. That’s the price of admission. That’s what you should do every night,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said. “These guys are a hard-working group; they’re just struggling down the stretch.”
ISU played its second game in a row without second-leading scorer Manny Arop, who remained suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Arop did dress for the game and took part in pregame warm-ups, but did not play.
But while Arop’s scoring was missed, ISU’s problems on Saturday had more to do with defense than offense.
Twenty of Ryan’s 31 points were scored in the second half, but it was far from a one-man show for the Aces. Unheralded players such as Ryan Sawvell (12 points) and Jordan Nelson (11 points) also hurt the Sycamores at critical junctures.
Evansville (18-13, 10-8) got ISU to over-commit at times and were able to exploit it by getting easy chances at the basket. The Aces scored 26 points in the paint and had 26 assists, a season-high for an ISU opponent.
That aspect of Evansville’s game also got ISU into foul trouble. The Sycamores played much of the second half with three players (Lucas Eitel, Devonte Brown and Justin Gant) on four fouls. In addition to being late on Evansville’s post players, ISU was also guilty of too many reach-ins.
“I think what’s happened is that we’ve become a little selfish in our play. They’re not selfish guys, but we’re worrying too much about offense and we’re letting the offense effect how we’re guarding. When we were winning games and beating good teams, we were defending every possession and we’ve got away from that,” Lansing said.
Lansing said he’s tried to rest the team during practices throughout the month. That will likely change next week as ISU has more practice time available prior to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
“We haven’t been able to go five-on-five in live play in practice because we’ve tried to err on the side of caution so we can compete at a high level. It’s my fault, we have to do it in practice or we can’t do it in games. We have to go at each other better [in practice],” Lansing said.
ISU’s offensive performance was better than it was against Drake. At times, the Sycamores struck the right balance between its outside shooting and pick-and-rolls to the basket, but Lansing still felt the team took too many 3-pointers. ISU was 6 of 23 from long range.
Partly due to Arop’s absence, ISU shook up the starting lineup. Eitel and Brown were part of the starting five, along with Khristian Smith, who replaced Arop. The starting lineup change didn’t have an immediate effect. Evansville led throughout the first half and gradually built its advantage to 25-14 with 7:22 left in the half.
Then a light went on for the Sycamores. Consecutive 3-pointers by R.J. Mahurin and Odum kick-started a 12-5 ISU run. The Sycamores cut the Aces’ lead to 30-26 and seemed to conjure some of the mojo that put them in good stead earlier in the season.
Nelson was able to hit jumpers to keep ISU from going in front, but the Sycamores went into halftime with the momentum, trailing by just one, 37-36.
ISU seemed to build on that momentum when it opened the second half with a 5-0 run to take a 41-37 lead. Evansville failed to score on its first three possessions.
But then the worm didn’t just turn against the Sycamores, it did a 180-degree spin.
Ryan hit a 12-footer at 17:51 and it would start a string of 10 straight possessions in which the Aces would score. The 16-0 Evansville run was a mortal blow to the Sycamores as the Aces led 57-43 by the time a Mahurin 3-pointer put the rally to a merciful end.
Only it wasn’t the end. Evansville kept on converting throughout the second half. ISU briefly gave itself some hope when it cut its deficit to 62-56, but it was a false dawn. Evansville scored 22 points in the final 8:13, including 11 by Ryan, as the game quickly morphed into a Senior Day party for the Aces at Ford Center.
“The game came down to us not getting stops. We fouled them and put them on the line too many times. We gave Colt Ryan too many open looks. Not necessarily open, but open for him. I didn’t step out as much as I needed to on some of those,” Mahurin said.
The loss means that ISU will play in the 4-5 game at the MVC Tournament at 3:35 p.m. next Friday at Scottrade Center in St. Louis in a rematch against Evansville.
ISU’s players and coaches were left with the prospect of treating Arch Madness as a new beginning for them to re-focus. Certainly, the way the regular season ended is something ISU wants to forget.
“Hopefully, we can start a clean slate and get our mojo back,” Odum said. “We haven’t been able to practice as hard as we want to. We have games every few days so we have to rest a bit. We’ll be able to practice hard next week. I can help us make a run in the tournament.”
INDIANA STATE (68) — Mahurin 6-13 2-2 16, Eitel 0-4 0-0 0, Brown 1-4 2-2 5, Odum 7-13 5-7 20, K. Smith 3-7 0-0 6, Kitchell 0-1 1-4 1, Gant 2-3 1-2 5, Cummings 5-11 1-1 13, R. Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Burnett 1-3 0-0 2. 25-59 FG, 12-18 FT, 68 TP.
EVANSVILLE (84) — Ryan 11-19 6-8 31, Mockevicius 3-5 0-0 6, Taylor 1-3 1-2 3, Wing 1-1 2-2 4, Cox 0-5 2-2 2, Sawvell 5-8 2-3 12, Nelson 4-5 1-1 11, Jones 3-5 1-3 7, Moore 1-1 0-0 2, Chinn 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Balentine 2-5 2-2 6. 31-57 FG, 17-23 FT, 84 TP.
Halftime score – UE 37-36. 3-point goals – ISU 6-23 (Mahurin 2-6, Cummings 2-6, Odum 1-3, Brown 1-2, Eitel 0-4, K. Smith 0-2), UE 5-10 (Ryan 3-4, Nelson 2-3, Cox 0-2, Balentine 0-1). Rebounds – ISU 30 (Mahurin 9, Odum 6, K. Smith 4, Team 4, Kitchell 2, Brown, Gant, Cummings, R. Smith, Burnett), UE 38 (Sawvell 6, Jones 6, Ryan 5, Taylor 5, Mockevicius 4, Wing 4, Team 3, Nelson 2, Cox, Moore, Balentine), Assists – ISU 15 (Odum 5, Brown 3, K. Smith 3, Mahurin, Eitel, Kitchell, Cummings), UE 26 (Ryan 8, Cox 7, Balentine 7, Nelson 2, Taylor, Wing), Steals – ISU 5 (Cummings 3, Mahurin, K. Smith), UE 3 (Ryan, Taylor, Balentine), Blocks – ISU 5 (Mahurin 3, Brown, Cummings), UE 3 (Mockevicius 3), Turnovers – ISU 14 (Odum 4, Brown 3, Mahurin 2, Gant 2, Cummings 2, Team), UE 13 (Ryan 5, Taylor 2, Wing 2, Cox 2, Mockevicius, Nelson), Total fouls – ISU 21, UE 23. A – 6909.
Next — ISU (17-13, 9-9) will play either Evansville or Northern Iowa at 3:35 p.m. Friday in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. UE (18-13, 10-8) will play Indiana State at 3:35 p.m. Friday in the MVC Tournament or will play at 9:35 p.m. Friday against an opponent to be determined.
MVC Tournament pairings
Thursday (all times Eastern)
No. 8 Bradley vs. No. 9 Drake, 7 p.m.
No. 7 Missouri State vs. No. 10 Southern Illinois, 9:35 p.m.
No. 1 Creighton vs. Bradley-Drake winner, 1 p.m.
No. 4 Evansville vs. No. 5 Indiana State, 3:30 p.m.
No. 2 Wichita State vs. Missouri State-SIU winner, 7 p.m.
No. 3 Northern Iowa vs. No. 6 Illinois State, 9:35 p.m.
Creighton-Bradley-Drake winner vs. Evansville-Indiana State winner, 2:35 p.m.
Wichita State-Missouri State-SIU winner vs. UNI-Illinois State winner, 5 p.m.
MVC championship game, 2 p.m.