NORMAL — In a game with few memorable plays, Austin Hill made the most memorable play of the season for Illinois State’s struggling basketball team.
And set off a most unlikely celebration.
Hill split a couple defenders and banked in a short jumper with 2.7 seconds left. When Dodie Dunson’s shot just inside halfcourt went long, ISU students stormed the court as the Redbirds downed arch-rival Bradley, 51-50, before a Senior Night crowd of 6,126 at Redbird Arena.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” said Hill of the wild celebration. “I was still on the ground and looked up and somebody’s feet were in my face.”
The merriment suggested ISU won the Missouri Valley Conference title.
Instead, the Redbirds (12-17, 4-13 Valley) clinched the No. 9 seed in next week’s league tournament in St. Louis, while Bradley (10-19, 3-14) is locked in at No. 10. ISU concludes the regular season at Evansville on Saturday.
ISU coach Tim Jankovich said he was “mixed” on the fans charging the court. But he quickly changed his mind.
“It was great for our guys. They needed a pick-me-up tonight, and the fans’ response was tremendous,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich as the Redbirds broke a six-game losing streak.
“Just appreciating the fact that this team, while we’ve gone through a lot of tough times, has continued to battle and never got their heads down and continued to compete hard and stay together. Maybe it was a reward for that, so I’m glad they did.”
For most of the game, there wasn’t much of a reward for fans or players. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 34 from 3-point range. ISU committed 12 of its 16 turnovers in the first half, yet only trailed 25-21 because Bradley shot 31 percent from the field.
But the final 69 seconds negated all that as the lead changed hands five times.
ISU went in front for the first time at 47-46 on Jackie Carmichael’s basket with 1:09 left. Carmichael finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
After two more lead changes, Dyricus Simms-Edwards sank a tough running jumper with 9.1 seconds showing to put the Braves ahead, 50-49.
ISU elected not to call a timeout after Simms-Edwards’ basket.
“We said bring it if they happen to score,” said Jankovich. “I’m just a big believer in that, a broken floor any day of the week as opposed to calling a timeout and letting them do all the switching and zoning.”
Hill, who couldn’t find many driving lanes all night, was surprised at what unfolded in front of him.
“When I came down he (Simms-Edwards) was biting to my left, then I saw a wide-open lane to my right,” said Hill. “I said ‘what,’ and I just took it.”
Bradley coach Jim Les thought the Braves had it played just right.
“His strength is going left, and we forced him to go right. Give him credit,” said Les. “We sent him away from the percentages, and he made one going to his right.”
Hill also provided the winning points with two free throws in ISU’s 79-78 overtime victory at Peoria last month. He scored 10 points Tuesday as the Redbirds swept the season series against Bradley for the second straight year. ISU has now won five straight in the heated series.
Carmichael might be Valley Player of the Year if he could face Bradley every night. He had 24 points and 17 rebounds in Peoria.
“That experience in Peoria definitely helped us a lot,” said Carmichael.
ISU’s unsung heroes were Jon Ekey and Justin Clark. They forced the Valley’s leading scorer, Andrew Warren, into 4-of-16 shooting and 10 points, well below his 18.8 average. Simms-Edwards paced Bradley with 15 points.
“I’m happy for the seniors,” said Jankovich. “If it had gone the other way, their last home game to feel a one-point loss to your rival, that’s a pretty big pill to swallow.”
Instead, the Redbirds seniors — and younger players — will never forget the postgame celebration.
“Usually there’s not that many people at the games,” said Carmichael, a sophomore. “All the people rushing on the court, it was kind of crazy. But it was cool.”
Redbird Report Card
FRONT COURT - B-: Jackie Carmichael posted another double-double against Bradley, but needed more help. ISU grabbed 41-36 rebounding advantage.
BACKCOURT - C: Justin Clark and Jon Ekey held Valley leading scorer Andrew Warren to 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting. ISU was only able to make 2 of 19 3-pointers.
BENCH - B: Carmichael came off bench on Senior Night and was difference in game. John Wilkins added seven points and six boards.
OVERALL - C+: ISU fans got a little giddy after win, but why not? However, season won't last long with poor shooting and sloppy turnovers against better teams.