OMAHA, Neb. — As Illinois State broke its huddle with 15 seconds left Saturday at the Qwest Center, several voices were shouting at once. But they were all saying the same thing.
That was the rallying cry from coaches and players alike as the Redbirds clung to a two-point lead against Creighton in a crucial Missouri Valley Conference basketball game.
For the second straight game, the Redbirds got that one defensive stop.
ISU jumped out on Creighton’s 3-point shooters and forced a low pass into the post. But Kenny Lawson fumbled the ball out of bounds with 2.1 seconds showing before Lloyd Phillips’ two free throws clinched the Redbirds’ 67-63 victory before an announced crowd of 16,209.
“We kind of knew what they were going to run,” said Phillips. “Their 4 men are the best shooters on the team. We knew something was coming. They kind of bobbled it and didn’t know what to do.”
Eight days ago, the Redbirds looked headed for a play-in round game at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Thanks to three wins by a combined eight points, ISU (18-8) has seized control of third place in the Valley with a 9-6 mark.
Five ISU players scored in double figures, led by Osiris Eldridge and Dinma Odiakosa with 12 points each. Phillips added 11 points, while Austin Hill and Kellen Thornton were big off the bench with 10 points each.
“Everybody got into it today. We came out and did a great job defensively, especially in the second half,” said Eldridge. “We amped it up on the defensive side and tried to control them down the stretch and came up with the win.”
Lawson, a 6-9 junior center, was almost unstoppable and scored a game-high 20 points. With Odiakosa fouled out, freshman Jackie Carmichael guarded Lawson at the end. However, Creighton (13-13) didn’t immediately dump the ball into Lawson and Kaleb Korver seemed to pass up a 3-point attempt.
“If we freed up a 3-point shooter or got something to the basket, we were going to take it,” said Creighton coach Dana Altman. “It was not designed specifically for a three or a two, just whatever a good shot was.”
The Redbirds shot 63.6 percent in the second half to finish at 50.9 percent (27 of 53), only the second time they have been above 50 percent in Valley games.
“I feel terrific the last two games we’ve played, both on the road against very good teams, the game point has been with us on defense,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich. “That, to me, is as positive as anything we could talk about.”
Jankovich wasn’t feeling too positive flying here Friday after practice at home.
“A lot of guys were really (locked) in which is amazing because we had, without question, the poorest practice in the three years I’ve been at Illinois State,” he said. “My confidence level in this performance we saw was about zero.”
This back-and-forth game featured 20 ties and nine lead changes. ISU looked ready to take command when Phillips’ steal and layup capped a 12-2 run for a 62-55 lead with 3:47 left. But that was the Redbirds’ last basket.
Justin Carter made two free throws after Antoine Young was fouled and had to leave with an ankle injury to get Creighton within 64-63 with 24 seconds left. Eldridge split a pair of free throws three seconds later, setting up the frantic ending.
Eldridge ended the first half with a 30-footer at the buzzer to put ISU ahead, 31-30.
“That was almost embarrassing, but what a great shot,” said Jankovich. “It was a huge lift and great confidence boost.”
Redbird Report Card
Kenny Lawson was a ton to handle for ISU and scored game-high 20 points. Tony Lewis and Jackie Carmichael didn’t give Dinma Odiakosa much help.
ISU’s defense on Creighton’s perimeter players was outstanding. Osiris Eldridge missed open shots, but made a clutch 3 at the end of the half.
Creighton’s bench almost never gets outscored, but ISU subs held 25-17 edge thanks to Austin Hill (10 points) and Kellen Thornton (10 points).
The Redbirds have finally learned how to win close games, especially on the road. Too bad the Valley Tournament doesn’t start next week.