When Indiana State's men's basketball players exited the floor after a double overtime loss to Missouri-Kansas City on Dec. 28, they were serenaded from some with boos and a smattering of heckling.
One week later, the Sycamores left the Hulman Center floor to a standing ovation.
Fans know a good thing when they see it, and they gave improving ISU the respect it was due after a thrilling 79-75 overtime victory over Evansville.
After a 4-8 nonconference campaign that left more questions than answers, the Sycamores are suddenly buoyant again. ISU (6-8 overall) is 2-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference after wins over Illinois State and Evansville, both teams considered to be top-half finishers in the league.
While ISU's road win at Illinois State on Dec. 31 was a welcome respite from tough times, Sunday's game was better-played and better-executed by the Sycamores against an Evansville team fresh off of a win over No. 23-ranked Northern Iowa last Thursday.
"A lot of us struggled at the start of the year, including me. Guys are playing better now and the results are showing. It's only a couple of wins, but we're happy with them," ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Center Jake Kitchell had his best game in an ISU uniform. Rising to the occasion of playing against Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius, Kitchell scored a career-high 21 points and had 11 rebounds.
"I let it come to me. I don't try to do too much but play my role. I was getting open shots and easy ones early and that got me going," Kitchell said. "Going against a double-double guy is something you ought to get excited about. It was a great battle."
Kitchell also induced Mockevicius to foul out in overtime and the Lithuanian's absence in crunch time was felt in a big way by the Purple Aces.
"Kitch is just working. He's relentless. He looked forward to the challenge of Illinois State's Reggie Lynch and Big Mock [Mockevicius]. He might not be the tallest or most athletic, but he's going to work and compete. It's so good to see him get some results and get some easy baskets. Our offense is so much better with those easy baskets," Lansing said.
Devonte Brown, subject to withering criticism after a nine-turnover effort against Illinois State, also made an important contribution. His defensive assignment was to guard 22 point-per-game scorer D.J. Balentine. Running with Balentine as he negotiated endless screens, Brown helped hold Balentine to 15 points on 14 shots. Moreover, Brown had a key strip of Balentine with 38 seconds left in overtime that led to ISU's go-ahead basket.
"I just tried to make him uncomfortable. I tried to make him do a couple things to make him turn down some shots that he normally doesn't turn down. That's the only way you can guard him," Brown said.
ISU's first-year players continued their improvement. Tre Bennett had 15 points, Brenton Scott had 13, but Alex Etherington took the biggest leap forward.
The redshirt freshman had a career-high 13 points and was 5-for-5 from the field, including 3-for-3 from 3-point range. Etherington also had a key steal late in regulation that led to the game-tying bucket and was active defensively in the paint.
"The pace is a lot different than high school so it took a while to get going, but I'm finally starting to get into rhythm. I struggled with my shot, I felt like I was out of rhythm, so I'm starting to get a feel for everything," Etherington said.
Collectively, ISU did several things well. After a 10-turnover first half, the Sycamores had just three in the second half and overtime. ISU drained 7 of 15 from 3-point range as its 3-point shooting continues to show signs of life.
Most of all, though, ISU locked down defensively. Duane Gibson's bucket with 2:38 left in regulation was the last field goal Evansville scored in the game. The Aces missed their final three shots in regulation and all three of their attempts in overtime.
The game was played at a high level — it featured 25 lead changes and 14 ties — and no team led by more than seven. For most of the contest, neither team could build more than a one-possession advantage. Appropriately, ISU led 31-30 at halftime, and with the exception of a brief four-point ISU lead early in the second half, it was a one-possession game until midway though the second half.
Evansville (11-3, 1-1) broke the ice first with a 7-0 run that put it up 52-46 with 11:55 to play. ISU played catch-up for the remainder of regulation, but only briefly let Evansville increase its lead. The Aces led 68-61 with 3:55 to go, but ISU resolved itself to finish strong.
ISU re-doubled its defensive intensity and Gibson's bucket was the only points the Aces would score for the remainder of regulation. ISU finished regulation with a 9-2 run. After a Scott 3-pointer with 2:15 left made it 70-68, Etherington tipped a pass in the lane to set up a game-tying bucket by Kitchell with 1:39 left.
Both teams missed chances to win in regulation, Khristian Smith forced a jumper in a double-team on ISU's last possession with 3 seconds left. For the second time in a week, ISU was overtime-bound.
Though Evansville took a 75-72 lead, the die was cast when Mockevicius earned foul number five with 3:22 left. His absence changed the way ISU could guard as it could help more to the Aces' shooters.
Worse for Evansville, it meant that Mockevicius's replacement — Jaylon Moore — might find his way to the free throw line where he converts just 60 percent of his attempts.
After Scott tied the game at 75 with a free throw, Moore missed two foul shots with 1:31 left. ISU missed a chance to take the lead as Brown was whistled for an offensive foul, but Brown soon atoned for it.
Brown guarded Balentine as he had the ball outside the 3-point line outside the perimeter. Brown read correctly that Balentine was going to attempt a crossover dribble to set himself up for a shot. Brown swiped the ball away from Balentine and fed Scott in transition for an easy layup to put ISU up 77-75.
"It was one of his patented moves. I had my hands ready for a steal and you have to be ready because he can score in multiple ways," Brown said. "He was doing a simple crossover to get into his jumper. I just read it."
Justin Gant blocked a Mislav Brzoja attempt and Moore went to the line again with 8.6 seconds left. Once again, he missed both attempts. Brown made two at the line with 7.2 seconds left to clinch ISU's victory.
"Indiana State played hard and made the plays to win. We made too many mistakes and you just can't do that," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said.
ISU returns to Hulman Center on Wednesday as it hosts Missouri State.
EVANSVILLE (75) — J. Brown 2-6 3-4 7, Brzoja 7-11 0-0 17, Balentine 4-14 7-8 15, Simmons 4-5 2-2 12, Mockevicius 6-11 1-1 13, Stafford 0-0 0-0 0, Benzon 2-5 1-1 5, Gibson 3-6 0-1 6, Moore 0-0 0-4 0. 28-58 FG, 14-21 FT, 75 TP.
INDIANA STATE (79) — Kitchell 8-13 4-4 21, Smith 3-9 2-2 8, Scott 5-11 1-2 13, Gant 1-3 0-0 2, Brown 1-6 3-6 5, Etherington 5-5 0-0 13, Bennett 3-7 8-10 15, Prusator 0-0 0-0 0, Bell 1-2 0-0 2. 27-56 FG, 18-24 FT, 79 TP.
Halftime — ISU 31-30. End of regulation — 70-70. 3-point goals — UE 5-12 (Brzoja 3-4, Simmons 2-3, Brown 0-3, Balentine 0-1, Benzon 0-1); ISU 7-15 (Etherington 3-3, Scott 2-5, Kitchell 1-3, Bennett 1-3, Gant 0-1). Rebounds — UE 33 (Mockevicius 14, Balentine 5, Brzoja 3, Benzon 3, Team 3, Gibson 2, Brown, Simmons, Moore); ISU 33 (Kitchell 11, Brown 5, Etherington 4, Smith 3, Scott 3, Team 3, Gant 2, Bennett, Prusator). Assists — UE 17 (Simmons 4, Gibson 4, Brzoja 3, Brown 2, Balentine 2, Mockevicius, Benzon); ISU 20 (Bennett 5, Smith 4, Brown 4, Scott 3, Kitchell 2, Bell 2). Steals — UE 6 (Simmons 2, Mockevicius 2, Brzoja, Gibson); ISU 4 (Brown 2, Etherington, Bennett). Blocks — UE 8 (Mockevicius 5, Brzoja, Balentine, Benzon); ISU 4 (Gant 2, Kitchell, Bell). Turnovers — UE 13 (Balentine 3, Brown 2, Simmons 2, Mockevicius 2, Benzon 2, Gibson 2); ISU 13 (Brown 4, Bell 3, Smith 2, Etherington 2, Scott, Gant). Total fouls — UE 20, ISU 19. Fouled out — Mockevicius. A — 3,948.
Next — ISU (6-8, 2-0) plays host to Missouri State and Evansville (11-3, 1-1) plays host to Loyola on Wednesday.