ST. LOUIS — The “Core Four” of veterans Paris Lee, Deontae Hawkins, Tony Wills and MiKyle McIntosh dominate much of the discussion surrounding Illinois State's basketball team.
There is another moniker being tossed around these days, even if only Keyshawn Evans and DJ Clayton know about it.
“We call each other '6' and '7' all the time when we come in,” said Evans of the Redbirds’ bench duo. “It’s big that we come in and give energy to everybody.”
Evans and Clayton provided plenty of that in Friday’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament quarterfinal game against Evansville — and a lot of scoring, too, to spark the top-seeded Redbirds after a sluggish start.
The duo combined for 20 first-half points as ISU took a 10-point halftime lead. The eighth-seeded Purple Aces rallied to make the favorites sweat in the final minute before ISU held on for an 80-69 victory at Scottrade Center.
Hawkins led four ISU players in double figures with 19 points and was part of a defensive effort that set a school and MVC Tournament record with 14 blocks.
“We see one person get a huge block, now we’re amped up to get a block, too,” said Hawkins, who had four blocks along with Phil Fayne and David Ndiaye.
The Redbirds improved to 26-5 in establishing a school record for wins in a season. ISU meets Southern Illinois (17-15) in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. semifinal game. SIU beat Loyola, 55-50, in a quarterfinal game.
Evans tied his career high with 16 points. Clayton added 12 points as the Redbird bench contributed a season-high 30 points.
Lee, the MVC Player of the Year, chipped in 13 points and seven assists as ISU recovered from a 17-12 deficit after 10 minutes against a gutsy Evansville (16-17) team that had only 16 hours rest after beating Indiana State in a play-in game Thursday.
ISU outscored the Aces, 31-16, the rest of the half in taking a 43-33 lead at the break. Hawkins scored four of the Redbirds' last five baskets.
“We went on a run when the bench was in,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “Keyshawn Evans was a huge spark. He hit two 3s and DJ played extremely well during that stretch. They got us going.”
ISU expanded the lead to 51-37 as Lee sank a runner with 15:25 left before the Aces slowly clawed their way back, led by Jaylon Brown. A 3-pointer by Brown brought Evansville within 65-59 with 6:29 left.
Evansville used a 10-3 run to cut the deficit to 73-69 after an ISU turnover in the backcourt resulted in Duane Gibson’s layup with 54 seconds left. Wills was fouled after getting the inbound pass and sank two free throws that led to seven straight ISU points to close out the game.
“It’s good to know when starters go down, it’s guys that can just come in and play big minutes like Keyshawn, Madison (Williams), Daoudo (Ndiaye) and DJ did,” said Lee.
All four ISU bench players were making their MVC tourney debuts. Sophomores Evans and Ndiaye did not play in last year’s quarterfinal loss to Indiana State. Williams, a freshman guard, played 10 minutes in his longest stint in a month after suffering a knee injury.
Evans made 6 of 10 shots from the field and 3 of 6 outside the arc
“I get a lot of wide-open looks,” said Evans, who also had a career-high four steals. “Coach Muller and Coach O (assistant Dean Oliver) try to get me to focus on shooting it right and not worry about the makes and misses.”
ISU’s previous record for blocks was 11 against Drake earlier this season. The Redbirds blocked nine shots in both earlier victories against Evansville.
“It’s just the way we play and the way they play,” said Muller. “They don’t take hardly any 3s. So they’re constantly attacking the rim and driving and driving and driving. We’ve got some length at those positions and situations.”
Brown, the Valley’s scoring leader with a 20.8 average, scored a game-high 24 points. But he went 7 of 25 from the field as Wills followed Brown all over the place in the Aces’ motion offense.
“Me and Tony go way back. He’s been guarding me since I was in middle school (in Indiana),” said Brown. “We know each other’s games pretty well. Anytime we play, I know he’s going to compete against me.”
Center David Howard added 14 points for the Aces, while Christian Benzon contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds. Evansville grabbed a 37-29 rebounding advantage, but that included seven team rebounds after ISU blocks went out of bounds.
“Our rebounding was bad. A couple of our really good rebounders — Phil, David, some guys — they had uncharacteristically bad rebounding days,” said Muller. “We know its going to be very important for us.”