WILMINGTON, N.C. – Chad Tomko’s off-balance 3-point attempt hung in the air as the buzzer sounded Monday night.
Naturally, Illinois State’s basketball team feared the worst.
“All I could think about was a couple years ago at Missouri State, they hit a turnaround 40-foot bank shot to go into overtime,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich. “If there was such a thing as a great look from 36 feet, he (Tomko) had one.”
However, Tomko’s shot went long. ISU celebrated its first road victory of the season with a 62-60 nail-biting overtime win before a Trask Coliseum crowd of 4,024.
“It’s a huge win and gives us confidence on the road. It shows we can fight,” said ISU senior guard Alex Rubin. “A month ago we don’t win that game. We would have folded or something.”
Instead, it will be a happy holiday as ISU improved to 8-3 in its final tune-up before Missouri Valley Conference play begins Dec. 29 against Creighton at Redbird Arena.
Redshirt freshman Jon Ekey busted out with 22 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Redbirds, well above his previous season bests (seven points and six rebounds). John Wilkins made his first start and responded with 13 points and eight rebounds.
But the biggest shot of the game belonged to Rubin.
With less than a minute left in overtime Ekey missed a jumper, but Wilkins grabbed the loose ball. He found Rubin alone outside the arc. Rubin, who missed two free throws at the start of overtime, didn’t hesitate. He sank the 3-pointer to put ISU ahead, 59-56, with 45 seconds left.
“What a courageous shot after just missing some free throws,” said Jankovich.
Rubin did miss another free throw with ISU ahead, 62-59, which could have iced the game with six seconds left. The Seahawks (5-5) got the rebound, and Rubin fouled Tanner Milson so UNCW couldn’t get off a 3-pointer to force a second overtime.
Milson made his first free throw with 3.8 seconds showing before intentionally missing the second. The ball bounced out to Tomko, a gritty 5-foot-11 senior guard who had scored 23 points and gave ISU fits the entire game.
“I thought that ball was going in, to be honest with you,” said Jankovich. “I can’t imagine how our guys would have felt if that went in.”
Instead, ISU earned its most important victory of the season. Ekey and Wilkins were inserted into the starting lineup and might be difficult to take out for the next couple years.
Ekey made 4-of-8 3-pointers. He has quickly adapted to the small forward spot in his second game at that position.
“The past week-and-a-half Coach talked to me about shooting more,” said Ekey. “That’s what I’ve been doing in practice, working on everything. It paid off this game.”
ISU led from the start before UNCW finally went ahead, 37-36, on Tomko’s 3-pointer with 8:42 left. Tomko followed with a driving basket before Wilkins stopped the surge with a 3-pointer from the corner.
The Redbirds held a 52-47 lead with less than 90 seconds left in regulation. UNCW, which ranked 16th in this week’s NCAA statistics with a .414 shooting percentage on 3-pointers, wasn’t done just yet.
Ahmad Grant’s 3-pointer with 43 seconds left forced a 52-all tie. Austin Hill dribbled the ball off his foot, but Ekey got it on the baseline and missed an 18-footer in the closing seconds for a possible win.
ISU outrebounded the Seahawks, 40-30. That led to a 14-9 advantage in second-chance points.
“You’ve got to give Illinois State credit. They came out and did some nice things execution-wise that hurt us early,” said first-year UNCW coach Buzz Peterson. “I don’t know why 10 (Rubin) was that open when he hit that 3.
Redbird Report Card
Front Court - A: Jon Ekey busted through with a double-double, while John Wilkins and Jackie Carmichael made key hoops late.
Backcourt - C+: Chad Tomko (23 points) was a tough guy to handle. The Redbirds held other guards in check while Alex Rubin sank clutch 3-pointer late.
Bench - C: Austin Hill struggled with his shooting, while Tony Lewis pulled down five rebounds.
Overall - B: This is a game the Redbirds badly needed. The shot of confidence could go a long way with Missouri Valley Conference action nine days away.