ST. LOUIS — When William Tinsley opened the second half by swishing a 3-pointer, Illinois State's basketball team appeared ready for a comeback.
It didn't take long for those hopes to be dashed during Sunday's Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game.
Loyola soon extended a six-point lead to double digits. The Redbirds' shooting struggles never went away as the top-seeded Ramblers cruised to a 65-49 victory and their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1985.
“We took good shots. We didn't force anything … but it just didn't fall today,” said ISU junior Milik Yarbrough. “Overall, we just didn't play our best basketball.”
ISU, the No. 3 seed that survived in overtime against second-seed Southern Illinois in the semifinals, shot 31.8 percent from the field and was only 5 of 25 outside the arc. The Redbirds fell for the third time in the last four years — and sixth time in the last 11 — in the MVC title game as their NCAA drought since last going in 1998 continues into next year.
“We just didn't play well … if you play well and get beat, it's a little bit easier to take,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “I told the team, I'm not quite as emotional this year because we don't have seniors. It's not like a career has ended tonight.”
Muller is hoping the Redbirds will get a bid to the National Invitation Tournament next Sunday. If not, ISU finished the season with an 18-15 record.
Phil Fayne led ISU with 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Yarbrough contributed 12 points and Tinsley had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Senior forward Donte Ingram, who was named the tourney's most outstanding player, paced Loyola (28-5) with 18 points. Freshman center Cameron Krutwig chipped in 11 points and nine rebounds as the Ramblers shot 41.5 percent from the field and 9 of 24 on 3-pointers.
Eight days earlier in Chicago, ISU led Loyola by six with less than 10 minutes left before the Ramblers were able to pull out a 68-61 victory.
Sunday's game was a different story as ISU never led. The only tie came at 2-2.
“We got off to a hot start. We made some shots and our guys, you could just see, sometimes in a setting like this, to get some things going early, your momentum can build,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser, who was ISU's coach from 2003-07.
Despite falling behind 9-2, Fayne sank two free throws to get ISU within 20-18 with 7:09 left in the first half. But freshman Lucas Williamson hit two 3-pointers in the final four minutes to help the Ramblers take a 36-27 lead into the locker room.
When Yarbrough drove into the lane and kicked out to Tinsley in the corner for a 3-pointer just 22 seconds into the second half, the Redbird fans were cheering for a possible rally that never materialized.
Loyola went on a 15-4 run, capped by Ben Richardson's layup, as its lead ballooned to 51-34 with 13:25 left. ISU never got closer than 14 again as the Redbirds shot 25 percent from the field and 2 of 13 from distance in the second half.
“I would say we thought the momentum was on our side,” said Fayne. “Boogie (Tinsley) hit a great shot to start the second half. They really came out in the second half more prepared and more ready to attack than we did.”
Muller said ISU's momentum was indeed short-lived.
“The positive feelings we felt went away within 15 seconds,” he said. “Obviously from that point on, it wasn't much of a game at any point. We didn't handle it very well. We just didn't handle the game very well today.”
The Redbirds had made 10 and 12 3-pointers, respectively, in their two previous losses to Loyola. The Ramblers were determined not to let that happen again.
“We know the level of shooters they have,” said Moser. “We were wanting to close out way better than we did. We always talk about what can we do better than we did the first time?
“They get their 3s a number of ways. They get them on transition. They get them on inside-out passes with how good Yarbrough can pass, and they get them on ball screens with how good Keyshawn (Evans) can skip it out of that.”
Evans went 3 of 15 overall and 1 of 9 outside the arc while scoring seven points. Muller said it was difficult for Evans playing three straight days because of a knee injury that requires him playing with a brace, along with spraining his ankle Friday.
Plus, Muller sat down Evans for several minutes in the first half after he badly missed a 3-pointer in transition. Muller felt ISU didn't do itself any favors by missing several shots around the rim, either, in the first 20 minutes.
“We probably missed seven layups in the first half, I mean legitimately,” he said. “A couple of them might have been kind of contested, but we missed some point-blank layups between Keyshawn, Phil and Milik. You make a couple of those, obviously, it's a completely different game.”
ISU heard the Ramblers' celebration on the court in its locker room afterward.
“We just told each other we're not going to let this happen again next year,” said Yarbrough. “We're going to come out and be prepared for anything that comes our way. We're going to be back here next year.”