EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Illinois State’s basketball team had an extra day to prepare for Evansville’s motion offense. It did not go to waste.
The Redbirds held the Purple Aces, who came in as the country’s third-best shooting team, to 30 percent from the field in the second half Thursday night. Nick Banyard scored a career-high 18 points as ISU took over sole possession of second place in the Missouri Valley Conference with a 70-60 victory over Evansville before a Ford Center crowd of 4,195.
“We just broke down a lot of offensive segments. We didn’t try to go over it all at once,” said ISU guard Paris Lee. “We were very prepared for this game.”
ISU (15-11) followed up its upset victory over league-leading Wichita State last Saturday with its biggest road victory of the season. The Redbirds, who have won six of their last seven, improved to 9-4 in the league, three games behind Wichita State with five left beginning with Sunday’s 3 p.m. home game against Bradley.
That there was no letdown after beating the Shockers pleased ISU coach Dan Muller.
“I didn’t think it was going to be an issue because of what we’ve gone through, our nonconference schedule, mistakes we’ve made mentally,” said Muller. “We went through an emotional roller-coaster (earlier). Our guys were locked in. I’m not surprised, but it speaks to the team maturity we have right now.”
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, who was limited in the first half with foul trouble, added 14 points for the Redbirds. Lee put together a monster all-around floor game with 12 points, a career-high tying nine assists and four steals.
Banyard, in his first season with ISU after transferring from New Mexico, made 8-of-11 field goal attempts, including both his 3-point shots. He also grabbed four rebounds and helped battle inside against Evansville’s 6-10 Egidijus Mockevicius.
“I was waiting for it. It all came within the game,” said Banyard, a 6-8 junior forward. “I didn’t even realize I had 18 points … we’re always barking about making the extra pass. I told P-Lee after the game that was the best passing game I’ve seen him play.
“He was poised, stayed under control and it was all within the offense. When we make the extra pass, we can be a dangerous team.”
Evansville (19-7, 8-5), which was 12-1 at home before Thursday, handled ISU in Normal, 66-55, on Jan. 15.
The Redbirds have come a long way in the last four weeks.
D.J. Balentine, the Valley’s leading scorer, was pestered the entire game by Tony Wills and Justin McCloud. Balentine finished with 19 points on 6-of-16 shooting.
Mockevicius, who was saddled with foul trouble in the second half, recorded 16 points and 10 rebounds. But it was far from the 20 rebounds he gobbled up at Redbird Arena.
Evansville shot 38 percent for the game (19 of 50), while the Redbirds hit 40.7 percent (24 of 59).
“It helped preparing for this team as far as how difficult they are to guard,” said Muller of the extra day thanks to playing on Thursday. “We played them once and had some familiarity and the extra day of practice, who knows what would have happened if we didn’t. That’s the best we’ve guarded them in the last four or five games (against the Aces).”
ISU also grabbed a 39-35 rebounding advantage, with Deontae Hawkins handling nine boards. Both teams had 10 offensive rebounds, but the Redbirds scored 13 second-chance points to Evansville’s five.
Evansville also went 19 of 30 at the line, compared to ISU’s 15 of 16, and committed 18 turnovers, four more than the Redbirds.
“I thought they competed harder. We never really had any rhythm. Our execution just was not very good,” said Evansville coach Marty Simmons. “We were stagnant offensively. Give Illinois State all the credit. They out-executed us.”
The Redbirds trailed 31-30 at halftime but made four of their first five shots after the break, taking a 39-32 lead on McIntosh’s 15-foot jumper with 16:11 left.
Balentine wasn’t going down without a fight. He followed by getting inside for a basket and then scored on a three-point play. But Banyard was about to prove his first half, when he scored 10 points, wasn’t a fluke.
Banyard scored on a dunk and a lay-in, both off nice passes from Lee, to help ISU take a 44-37 advantage with 12:31 left. Mockevicius went to the bench a short time before with his fourth foul.
Balentine’s 3-point play trimmed ISU’s lead to four before the Redbirds went on an 8-1 run, capped by Banyard’s short bank shot on another Lee assist, for a 52-41 lead with 8:35 left.
Mockevicius came back in with 6:46 left and the Redbirds leading, 54-43. ISU immediately scored on Banyard’s dunk for its biggest lead at 56-43.
Evansville got within 58-49 on a pair of Mockevicius free throws with 3:41 left. But the Redbirds sank 14 of 14 free throws the rest of the way in clinching the win.
“We had guys up there we wanted,” said Muller, as Lee and Akoon-Purcell both sank six and Hawkins made a pair. “Late in games when they start fouling you, you have to make them.”
Banyard was coming off a pair of strong games last week against Loyola and Wichita State. He took it to another level Thursday.
“To his credit he’s continued to work to get extra shots up,” said Muller. “He’s shot it better in practice and I thought he was going to start making some. His activity level is always good and he finished around the rim. He was great.”