TULSA, Okla. — There was no sugar coating what happened to Illinois State’s basketball team in the second half Wednesday night at the Reynolds Center. The Redbirds didn’t even try.
ISU squandered a 14-point second-half lead as Tulsa pulled out a 70-68 victory before a crowd of 3,478. It was the third time in this young season the Redbirds lost on the road after leading almost the entire half.
Needless to say, the Redbirds were not in a good mood leaving their locker room.
“We just got comfortable. We don’t have the same energy we do at home,” said senior Paris Lee, who led ISU with a game-high 18 points. “I feel a lot of guys on the team felt it was over. I should have done a better job of letting them know we’re on the road and anything can happen.”
When asked if his team played not to lose after going ahead 48-34, ISU coach Dan Muller nodded his head in agreement.
“For the first time this year I felt that,” he said. “I know we’ve made mistakes in the past and lost games, but I saw that in some guys’ eyes. Foul trouble obviously hurt us. DJ (Clayton) was nonexistent and our rotations were shorter. I didn’t see it in Paris and Tony (Wills), but yeah, we played that way tonight.”
Sterling Taplin scored on a drive with 11 seconds left to break a 67-all tie. ISU called timeout and Muller was given a technical foul for protesting a traveling call on Phil Fayne with 35 seconds left that set up Taplin’s game-winning play.
“I was very surprised. I shouldn’t have done it,” said Muller. “I want to say that. I apologized to my team. I thought he knew he blew the call and wouldn’t give me a technical if I said something. I thought wrong. That was a mistake.”
Corey Henderson split two free throws, giving Tulsa a 70-67 lead. The Golden Hurricane fouled Lee with 3.6 seconds left. Lee made the first, but missed the second on purpose. The ball didn’t hit the rim, which is a violation, but Tulsa was called for a lane violation and ISU was given the ball on the alternate possession arrow.
However, the Redbirds couldn’t get the shot they wanted and Deontae Hawkins’ long 3-pointer at the buzzer came up short.
“I think we all let up defensively. They shot 46 or 47 percent. That just can’t happen,” said Wills, who scored a season-high 11 points. “That’s three games on the road and we have to be tougher.”
ISU (4-3) allowed Tulsa to shoot 51.9 percent in the second half. The Redbirds were forced to go to a zone with several players in foul trouble. Wills fouled out, while MiKyle McIntosh (15 points) and Clayton had four fouls each.
“The zone was brutal,” said Muller. “We couldn’t guard in man and we couldn’t guard in zone. Defense down the stretch is the reason we lost the game. We kind of let our foot off the gas.”
Lee put the blame on himself as the team’s fourth-year point guard.
“Whenever we lose these kinds of games I feel it’s my fault because I’ve been in these kinds of games three years now,” he said. “We shouldn’t lose games like this and it’s starting to aggravate me.”
ISU, which entertains UT Martin at 2 p.m. Saturday at Redbird Arena, shot 39 percent from the field. The Redbirds hit 12 of 28 attempts outside the arc, but were outscored 36-18 in the paint as the Golden Hurricane scored at will inside in the second half.
Tulsa (4-3) was led by forward Junior Etou and Taplin, a sophomore guard, with 15 points each. Freshman forward Will Magnay from Australia produced a double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.
The Redbirds, who led 36-32 at halftime after Lee’s late 3-pointer, hit Tulsa with a 3-point blitz to start the second half. Three-pointers by Wills, Lee and Hawkins gave ISU a 48-34 lead with 17:03 left.
Tulsa quickly came back. Lawson Korita’s 3-pointer brought the Hurricane within 53-45 with 12:09 left as the fouls started piling up on the Redbirds. Clayton picked up his fourth with 12:26 left, and Wills did the same about a minute later.
McIntosh got his fourth foul with 9:25 left. Tulsa closed within 58-54 on Magnay’s slam on a lob feed, but a couple baskets by Fayne off rebounds and Keyshawn Evans’ 3-pointer put ISU’s lead at 65-57 with 6:30 left.
Once again, Tulsa came back. Magney’s layup chopped ISU’s lead to 65-62 as the Redbirds went empty on five straight possessions. Etou’s three-point play gave Tulsa a 67-65 lead before McIntosh answered inside with 2:15 left to set up the wild finish.
“Obviously this was a really, really intense game,” said Tulsa coach Frank Haith. “I thought our guys fought really hard to get ourselves back in the game. We beat a really good Illinois State team. (Taplin and Magnay) made big plays down the stretch and this is something we can build on.”