ST. LOUIS —
It sounds counter-intuitive, but to go forward in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament you must first get stops.
In Friday’s MVC Tournament quarterfinal against Loyola, ISU followed that bit of zen to a tee. The Sycamores never let the Ramblers get comfortable offensively and put a hammer-lock on Loyola standout Milton Doyle. ISU rode its defense to an easy 75-62 victory at Scottrade Center.
“I like it when the ball goes in. I like great offense as much as anybody, but in this conference, as well as everyone is prepared, you have to guard and make it tough on people,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said. “Our focus was nothing easy.
“Let’s not give them anything easy. If they score, it’s going to be against a good defense.”
ISU (22-9) broke its three-game losing streak and advanced to Saturday’s 5 p.m. semifinal. The Sycamores will No. 6-seeded Southern Illinois. The Salukis defeated Northern Iowa 63-58 in Friday's last quarterfinal.
Jake Odum led ISU with 18 points. Justin Gant had 14 points and four assists. Devonte Brown added 12 points.
But it was ISU’s defense that carried the day. Loyola found it stifling.
How stifling? The Ramblers tied a MVC Tournament low (set earlier in the day by Illinois State) with four field goals in the first half. The Ramblers were 4 of 22 from the field in the opening 20 minutes.
ISU has wanted to re-position itself to be a defense-first team all season. Odum fell back on ISU’s 2011 tournament championship as a template.
“It takes each four-minute [period] in every game. That’s how we broke it down. We did that when we won the tournament my freshman year. We focused on each stop. It’s nice to get those stops,” Odum said.
Holding down Doyle was a big key. The MVC Freshman of the Year, who had 19 points, including the game-winner, against Bradley on Thursday, scored just four points on Friday. It was a team effort to keep Doyle down, but it started with Manny Arop.
“I was trying to make it tough on him. I wanted to make it difficult at all costs for him. No easy catches and when he made moves my teammates helped me out,” Arop said.
Lansing has thought that Arop hasn’t been getting his due defensively and sang his praises again after the victory.
“Manny was terrific and he does not get enough credit for how well he defends,” Lansing said. “Milton is so good. He’s going to be something to deal with in the next three years.”
The Sycamores got off to a flying start. ISU scored on its first six possessions to build an 11-4 advantage. Moreover, Doyle drew two early fouls.
But ISU couldn’t maintain its hot start. The offense bogged down — ISU had seven straight empty offensive possessions — and Loyola rallied to tie the game. ISU’s defense keep the pressure on Loyola ratcheted up, but it was still a slim 17-16 lead with 6:51 left.
Odum gave ISU a boost by going on a personal 6-0 run to put the Sycamores up 23-16, but ISU couldn’t maintain momentum. ISU’s halftime lead was 26-22, and if Odum hadn’t scored the last nine of the half for the Sycamores, ISU’s first-half fate could have been different.
“I saw the ball go down and I got that feeling. It was nice. It felt good and I just wanted to be aggressive,” Odum said.
The withering defense continued in the second half, and this time, it got a more consistent offensive performance to go with it.
Loyola (10-22) failed to score on five of its first seven possessions in the second half. ISU’s lead got to 10 points, dropped to six, but then an offensive surge — ISU scored on five straight possessions — saw the lead go to 10 again as ISU led 44-34 with 12:12 left.
But then ISU put down the defensive hammer — Loyola failed to score a field goal for nearly six minutes — and the Sycamores pulled away. The Sycamores led 61-41 with 4:43 remaining in the game and coasted from there.
“The kind of team we need to be to be successful is to have our defense feed our offense. Sometimes our offense gets going based on our defense,” said ISU guard Lucas Eitel, who had seven points.
ISU was all smiles after the game, but it wasn’t so before the game started. ISU showed up at Scottrade Center just 45 minutes prior to tipoff. There was a reception at the team hotel scheduled 75 minutes prior to game time and there was also confusion as to when ISU could warm-up prior to the game.
The superstitious Lansing was asked if ISU might make a habit of cutting its arrival a bit close to tipoff for comfort.
“I was livid before the game. There was a miscommunication because we thought we couldn’t get on until 30 minutes before [tipoff]. I was so mad and Lou [Gudino] said, ‘Don’t let the team see you mad.’ So I walked out and told them to get ready,” Lansing said. “Thank God we won, lets put it that way.”
It’s the second season in a row, and the third in the last four, that ISU has advanced to an Arch Madness semifinal. It’s the first time since 2000 that ISU played in a semifinal as the higher seed.
ISU is embracing all that goes with being the higher seed.
“We’re ready. We went at each other in practice, but we’re ready to go. We have one goal in mind ... to win this thing,” Odum said.
ST. LOUIS —
It sounds counter-intuitive, but to go forward in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament you must first get stops.
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