NORMAL — Alex Rubin went down hard in the first half, crashing off the courtside press table. Osiris Eldridge hit the court with a thud in the second half on a collision while driving to the basket.
Illinois State athletic trainer John Munn was a busy guy tending to the wounded Saturday at Redbird Arena.
Eldridge and Rubin didn’t stay out of action for long, though. That might attest to their toughness, but they probably don’t want to miss all the fun the Redbirds are having, either.
ISU committed a season-high 23 turnovers against Morehead State’s constant pressure. Yet Eldridge poured in 26 points and Rubin scored a career-high 15 as the Redbirds posted their fifth straight win with a 71-62 victory in an entertaining BracketBusters game before a crowd of 5,953.
“They may be one of the quickest teams we’ve played all year,” said Rubin. “You had to adjust your mindset to a pressing, really quick team that gets after you. The second half we settled down a little bit. We had a lot of turnovers, but we did a pretty good job handling the pressure and getting open looks.”
ISU improved to 20-8, marking its third straight year of hitting the magical 20-win total. The Redbirds return to Missouri Valley Conference play on Wednesday and try to lock up third place in the home finale at 7:05 p.m. against Indiana State.
Morehead State (19-9), which is second in the Ohio Valley Conference, came in with the nation’s leading rebounder in Kenneth Faried, a 6-foot-8 athletic freak who had posted 20 double-doubles this season. He was the main reason five NBA scouts were in attendance.
Dinma Odiakosa neutralized Faried. Odiakosa recorded his 10th double-double of the season with 10 points and 11 rebounds, while Faried contributed 13 points and eight rebounds.
ISU scored the first seven points of the second half to grab a 41-30 lead. But Morehead State kept chipping away and got within 49-47 with 9:45 left on Brandon Shingles’ basket.
Eldridge, who scored 18 points in an explosive first half, had been quiet after the break. But he scored six points in an 11-1 run that gave the Redbirds a 60-48 lead with five minutes left. Morehead State was able to mount another charge, drawing within 63-59 before ISU made 8 of 10 free throws to clinch the win.
“I’ve changed my mindset to go out there, just play, have fun and defend, and let the offense come,” said Eldridge, who has made 15-of-26 shots the last two games.
Jankovich sensed Eldridge would have a big game. Ironically, Eldridge didn’t have a basket in last year’s 76-70 win over Morehead State.
“I loved his rhythm tonight. You can just tell his confidence is back,” said Jankovich. “Great players play slow on offense. They play three-quarter speed then make bursts.”
ISU junior Austin Hill suffered a foot injury in the first half and didn’t play after the intermission. Freshmen guards Justin Clark (10 points) and Terry Johnson (three points, two steals) picked up Hill’s minutes — and also their coach’s trust.
“I feel more excited than ever about our depth,” said Jankovich. “If you look at our lineup, every guy suiting up has a lot to say about winning one or more games. That’s a great security feeling going to St. Louis (for the Valley Tournament) at this time of year.”
Morehead State came in as the nation’s third-best rebounding team at plus 9.5 boards per game. But ISU outrebounded the Eagles, 36-29, as Eldridge tied his season high with nine.
“They’re a very physical team for the mid-major level. We haven’t played too many teams at our level more physical than them, maybe Murray State,” said Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall. “That’s a tribute to their toughness and physicality around the goal. That was a huge key.”
Redbird Report Card
FRONT COURT - B–: Dinma Odiakosa basically played NCAA rebounding king Kenneth Faried to a draw, which was a win for ISU. However, rest of Redbird front line struggled.
BACKCOURT - A–: Osiris Eldridge looking like old self again while scoring 26 points. Alex Rubin matched Eldridge’s four 3-pointers and enjoyed best all-around game of career.
BENCH - B: Freshmen Justin Clark (10 points) and Terry Johnson (three points, two steals) were needed and came through with Austin Hill gimpy with a foot injury.
OVERALL - B: Morehead State’s pressing style presented a different challenge. ISU responded and kept building its confidence heading into final week of regular season.