This Illinois State basketball team apparently is not going to do anything the easy way this season.
The Redbirds have shown there is not a lead that is safe in their hands. ISU seemed on cruise control with a 13-point lead and less than six minutes left in Thursday's Valley opener against Northern Iowa.
Not so fast. ISU nearly squandered the whole thing, needing a big block by John Wilkins and clutch free throw shooting by Anthony Cousin to hold on for a 65-61 victory over the Panthers at Redbird Arena.
This could have been a disastrous loss, one you just don't shake away the next day. ISU, coming off last season's 4-14 Valley meltdown, needed to win the league opener at home. The Redbirds also needed to show they could beat UNI, which owned them the last three years. The Panthers had beaten ISU seven straight games, although most of those were close.
Hopefully, freshman Nic Moore learned a valuable lesson. Moore committed three of the late four turnovers. Moore has shown flashes of brilliance, including most of Thursday's game, and could be the MVC Freshman of the Year. But Moore needs to learn to protect the ball better when a desperate opponent is coming at him with the game on the line.
"Nic is an outstanding player," said ISU coach Tim Jankovich, preferring to draw on Moore's positives instead of negatives after the game. "He does not play like a freshman only maybe one or two possessions a game. The rest of the time he looks like a junior to me."
The Redbirds played most of the game without Tyler Brown, their second-leading scorer. Brown came down with a virus after returning to campus from Christmas break and practiced on a limited basis this week. He scored two points in 18 minutes.
"He was obviously not the Tyler we know and expect," said Jankovich. "I'm proud of him for fighting through it. You could tell he was trying to play solid and didn't have his normal feel and energy. He was just trying to help us win."
ISU needs to keep its focus heading to Carbondale on Sunday when it plays the worst team in the Valley.
Southern Illinois was drilled at Evansville, 78-60, on Thursday. That sent the reeling Salukis to a 3-9 record. SIU will be desperate for a win, especially playing an ISU team it beat twice last season. The heat really will be on Coach Chris Lowery.
If the Redbirds waltz into SIU Arena, they will get beat. With a trip to Missouri State looming on Wednesday, which will be a difficult place to win, the Redbirds need to take care of business against struggling SIU.
If not, ISU could be looking at a 1-2 Valley start heading into its next home game, a Jan. 7 game against Evansville.