NORMAL — The Redbird Arena crowd applauded wildly when Jon Ekey came into Saturday’s game with 12:33 left in the first half.
Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich might not have shown it, but inside he was cheering just as furiously for his team’s defense the entire two hours.
The Redbirds put on their best defensive performance of the season as they cruised past UIC, 53-43, before a crowd of 3,942. It was the fewest points the Redbirds have allowed since beating Winston-Salem, 53-33, on Nov. 28, 2008.
“I saw more light bulbs come on in terms of little subtle things we try to teach in one game than the previous five,” said Jankovich. “I thought from an awareness standpoint we took a big step.”
The Redbirds (7-3), who are off for final exams this week, held the Flames to three scoring droughts of more than four minutes. Only a late spurt helped UIC (4-6) shoot 37 percent from the field, while the Flames committed 18 turnovers.
Jankovich believes this is the first time ISU has held three straight opponents under 40 percent since he became coach in 2007.
“It was the best (defense) I’ve seen in a while,” said Austin Hill, who paced ISU with 15 points. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Anthony Cousin added nine points for the Redbirds, while Tony Lewis contributed eight points and five rebounds.
Ekey, a redshirt freshman forward, started the first four games at power forward. But his minutes diminished when John Wilkins became eligible on Nov. 28. Ekey played only three minutes in Wednesday’s two-point loss to Ohio.
Jankovich moved Ekey to the small forward spot Saturday, allowing he and Wilkins on the court at the same time. Ekey responded with four points, five rebounds and three steals in 18 minutes.
“I just have to more aggressive,” said Ekey, who was 2-of-8 from the field. “I tried to do that tonight and penetrate more and get more shots.”
Asked about the crowd’s positive reaction to his playing time, Ekey seemed embarrassed. “I don’t know why,” he said. “I try to zone all that stuff out, but I heard it a little bit.”
ISU still struggled with its shooting The Redbirds made 36.7 percent from the field (18 of 49) and 3-of-10 outside the arc.
“We ran our stuff pretty well, but we all have to get better in all areas,” said Hill. “We’ll get there.”
UIC’s Paul Carter, a transfer from Minnesota, recorded game highs of 16 points and 11 rebounds. Leading scorer Robo Kreps scored 13 points, but six came in the final two minutes with the game over.
ISU ended the first half on an 11-0 run to take a 27-18 lead at the intermission as UIC failed to score in the final 6:24. The run started when Jackie Carmichael, trailing on the break, took a pass from Cousin and scored on a slam dunk.
After that, the Flames went 0-of-6 from the field and committed three turnovers.
UIC closed within 29-24 early in the second half before a 15-4 run by the Redbirds bumped the lead to 44-28. The Flames never got closer than 10 again.
“Illinois State did a good job of just being a physical team, disrupting our offensive flow and getting our guys to make soft cuts,” said UIC first-year coach Howard Moore. “We did not make hard cuts in our offense or touch the posts like we talked about.”
Redbird Report Card
Front Court- C--: Minnesota transfer Paul Carter was tough to handle. Jackie Carmichael needs to get more than one rebound in 23 minutes.
Backcourt - B-: ISU's perimeter defenders did a good job, especially Alex Rubin against Robo Kreps. Austin Hill played under control with only one turnover.
Bench - B-: Jon Ekey, John Wilkins and Blake Mishler were just as good as the starters on both ends.
Overall - C+: UIC wasn't going to let this look pretty offensively. ISU gladly takes the win as it heads into finals week.