NORMAL — Almost all of Illinois State’s 22-point lead was gone. Tennessee State’s zone rattled the Redbirds, turning a rout into a one-possession game late Wednesday night at Redbird Arena.
ISU called a timeout and desperately needed a basket while clinging to a 69-66 lead.
“I said as our group went out watch out for the lob,” said Tennessee State coach John Cooper.
Austin Hill made Cooper look like a prophet as his lob found Jon Ekey for a dunk. The Redbirds made enough free throws the rest of the way to hold on for a 73-68 victory before a relieved crowd of 4,401.
Justin Clark’s career-high 20 points paced ISU (2-0), which stretched a 43-26 halftime lead to 48-26 with 18:18 left.
But Tennessee State (1-2) switched to a 3-2 zone, which baffled the Redbirds into 34.6 percent field goal shooting. The Tigers also got hot on the offensive end, shooting 54.8 percent, and nearly pulled off a miraculous upset.
“It felt like we played two games. We got two for the price of one,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich. “In the first half we probably played, at this time of year, as well as we could at both ends. We were aggressive, alert and unselfish and guarded awfully well.”
ISU shot 56.3 percent from the field in the first half, including 6 of 9 on 3-pointers. However, in the second half the Redbirds were going against a zone they hadn’t worked on in practice minus one of their point guards, Kenyon Smith (sprained thumb).
“That’s partly on me. We’re not that far into the season,” said Jankovich. “You pick what you work on. We’ve definitely worked far less against zone offense than man offense. I promise you that won’t happen again.”
The Redbirds knew they learned a lesson while dodging the upset bullet.
“It was a good experience because it showed how much confidence we have in ourselves and how much we can trust our teammates,” said Hill.
The Redbirds again showed their unselfishness with 20 assists on 29 baskets. None was bigger than Hill’s lob to Ekey with 52 seconds left.
“Coach drew it up perfect. It was there, and we went with it,” said Hill. “I trust Ekey on that one. We practice that all the time. It was like we were in practice.”
Clark, a sophomore guard, struggled all last season with his shot. He seems to have put that behind him and sank 6 of 12 attempts outside the arc Wednesday.
“I feel like this whole season I’m trying to find my rhythm shooting and getting into the flow of the game,” said Clark. “Tonight it was going for me, and I just went with it.”
Jackie Carmichael added 11 points and seven rebounds for the Redbirds. ISU owned a 41-29 rebounding advantage after getting beat on the boards by 10 in the opener.
Guards Patrick Miller and Wil Peters paced Tennessee State, which played with only seven scholarship players, with 14 points each.
Redbird report card
FRONT COURT – C+: Earning a 12-rebound difference was nice to see. Jackie Carmichael was able to stay out of foul trouble, but Redbirds couldn’t get him ball inside second half.
BACKCOURT – B-: Justin Clark looked confident while scoring career-high 20 points. ISU had problems stopping quick dribble penetration in second half.
BENCH – C: Seniors Austin Hill and Tony Lewis were needed down stretch to help Redbirds maintain poise and the lead. Kenyon Smith, out with sprained thumb, might have helped against zone.
OVERALL – C+: Easy to forget about great first half after near meltdown after the intermission. Road test at Arkansas-Little Rock on Sunday will be a test for young team.