KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Jon Ekey sensed something different as Illinois State’s basketball team built an 11-point lead with 17 minutes left against Western Michigan.
This didn’t look like the Redbirds who dropped five straight games entering Saturday’s BracketBusters contest at University Arena.
“We definitely looked together,” said Ekey. “We were running our plays and doing the things we needed to do.”
What ISU really needed was for Flenard Whitfield to stay on Western Michigan’s bench.
Whitfield, who suffered a sprained ankle five days earlier, entered for the first time with 16:54 left and ISU enjoying a 39-28 lead. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior forward provided the Broncos with eight points, five rebounds and a different energy as they rallied to beat ISU, 68-65, before a University Arena crowd of 3,066.
“I thought he won the game for them,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich. “Not only his production, which was outstanding (and) lifted the whole team, but you could tell there was a different emotion and intensity level.”
ISU (11-17) had two chances to go ahead or force overtime in the final 20 seconds, but failed to put up a shot both times.
Western Michigan’s Demetrius Ward missed two free throws with his team clinging to a 66-65 lead with 18 seconds left. ISU got the ball upcourt to Austin Hill, who tried to drive the baseline.
But Hill lost control. Ward got the loose ball and was fouled, making two free throws with 5.5 seconds showing. ISU rushed upcourt again, but Anthony Cousin couldn’t get a pass off to Justin Clark in time to put up a 3-pointer.
“We knew exactly (what we wanted to do). We couldn’t quite get it run quick enough,” said Jankovich. “We had time, but we got stuck over there for a second.”
The memory of an 11-minute stretch that began at the seven-minute mark of the first half is something the Redbirds should cherish. With Clark providing a second straight game of instant offense with three 3-pointers, ISU went on a 26-12 run to take control.
“We really got into a good rhythm,” said Jankovich. “We have gotten in some good rhythms before where we haven’t made any shots, but today we were making shots.”
The tide turned when Western Michigan (15-10) got two 3-pointers on the same possession sandwiched around a John Wilkins foul. That helped Western Michigan cut the deficit to 41-36 with 13:52 left, and it was close the rest of the way.
Hill paced ISU with 12 points, while Clark added 11 and Ekey 10. The Redbirds sank 7-of-15 3-point attempts and shot 46.9 percent from the field.
Ward led Western Michigan with 14 points, while freshman center Matt Stainbrook and senior guard Alex Wolf added 12 points each. Yet the Broncos needed Whitfield to pull out their fifth victory in the last six games.
“If we would have kept it close I would have kept Flen out,” said Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins. “But as it started to get away from us, he wanted to play. He came in and made a difference in the way we played in the second half.”
REDBIRD REPORT CARD
FRONT COURT — C: ISU was outrebounded, 31-28, and gave up 11 offensive boards. Jackie Carmichael wasn’t 100 percent after flu earlier in week.
BACKCOURT — C+: Austin Hill only took seven shots after scoring 50 points in two previous games. Justin Clark helped ISU go 7-of-15 on 3-pointers.
BENCH — B-: Clark coming on strong late in season and could be factor in Valley tourney. Carmichael and John Wilkins had two baskets each.
OVERALL — C+: ISU did a lot of positive things, but once again couldn’t hold lead in second half. Bradley will be out for revenge Tuesday.