TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State didn’t necessarily defeat Evansville 59-54 on Wednesday so much as they survived the Purple Aces.
Survival came in the form of a stout defense.
All season long, ISU has searched for the defensive mojo which served it well in the first three years of the Greg Lansing era. Slowly, but surely, the Sycamores have retrieved their identity.
Wednesday’s game might have been a turning point. Unable to unlock a rarely-seen Evansville zone, the Sycamores were listing and trailed 52-51 with 4:23 left, ISU locked down instead.
Evansville scored just one field goal the rest of the way. It felt good for the Sycamores to win a game with stops.
“Back in 2011, [defense] was our thing. Shots aren’t really falling right now, but we’re relying on our defense more than we were early in the season. It makes us tougher when we can lock down like we did,” ISU center Jake Kitchell said.
ISU coach Greg Lansing was gratified that ISU showed its defensive side when it mattered.
Though Evansville scorer D.J. Balentine was dangerous, he scored 19 points, below his season average of 23.1 points. He did add eight assists to that total.
“Devonte [Brown] and Khristian [Smith] did an unbelievable job on him. For him to get 19 points on 18 shots is pretty good,” Lansing said.
The victory clinched second place in the Missouri Valley Conference. ISU (21-6, 12-3) reached the 12-win mark in the MVC for just the fifth time in program history.
ISU’s defense carried the day, but senior Jake Odum gave ISU its scoring punch as he notched 22. It’s the second time in three games Odum has topped the 20-point mark.
He also passed Larry Bird on the school’s all-time free throws made list. Odum now has 552.
“Odum’s a great player. He makes great plays. I’ll be glad when he graduates,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said.
Odum’s 15-footer provided what proved to be the go-ahead bucket with 3:56 left. A Manny Arop runner with 2:26 made it 55-52 … then the Sycamores clung to their lead with bloody fingernails.
Balentine and Odum traded misses and then Balentine drew an ISU double-team and fed Egidijus Mockevicius for a layup with 1:18 left to make it 55-54.
Dawon Cummings was fouled and hit a pair of free throws with 1:02 left to make it 57-54.
Then it got crazy. Evansville had a near-minute-long possession with nothing to show for it.
Mockevicius missed a baseline layup, but Devonte Brown was called for traveling on a loose-ball scramble. Balentine and Duane Gibson then nearly fumbled the ball away with 30 seconds left, but Evansville had the possession arrow on the subsequent tie-up.
Still, the Aces lingered. Balentine, who was made to run through an endless series of screens, doggedly pursued by ISU defenders all the while, missed a 3-point attempt with 13 seconds left. The long rebound came to Gibson and Balentine got another chance with :06 left. It was short and ISU finally got the rebound to end the Evansville threat.
Odum’s pair of free throws with 2.3 seconds left clinched it.
“In the last five minutes, the will to win took over. We needed that win more than they did. We wanted it more and that’s what happened,” Odum said.
Lansing lauded the Sycamores’ toughness.
“Not one of our wins over Evansville has ever been easy. I commend our guys tonight. They fought like crazy tonight. We’re getting tougher, we’re getting tougher towards the end of games and getting stops,” Lansing said.
The start of the contest couldn’t have been more different.
ISU led 16-5 six minutes into contest and couldn’t have dreamt up a better scenario. The Sycamores, mired in a 3-point slump hit three long-range buckets in the run. ISU also kept Balentine and Mockevicius scoreless.
ISU’s good times didn’t last. Evansville clamped down defensively – ISU only had five buckets in the final 14 minutes of the first half – and patiently whittled away at the Sycamores’ advantage. When Gibson drained a 15-footer with 25 seconds left in the half, the Aces trailed by three. A Khristian Smith buzzer-beater gave ISU a tenuous five-point halftime edge.
ISU remained on knives’ edge in the second half as well. Balentine scored 11 in the first 12 minutes of the half, giving ISU no quarter when it was able to string together buckets against Evansville’s zone. ISU’s lead disappeared at the 9:28 mark when a Mockevicius lob bucket put the Aces in front.
A pair of Odum free throws and a 3-pointer by Dawon Cummings restored ISU’s advantage, but a Blake Simmons 3-pointer and a Balentine mid-range jumper put the Aces up one and set up ISU’s final defensive stand.
ISU next plays at Missouri State on Saturday.
VIDEOS: Greg Lansing, Jake Odum & Jake Kitchell
TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State didn’t necessarily defeat Evansville 59-54 on Wednesday so much as they survived the Purple Aces.
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