NORMAL — Maybe Illinois State's basketball team wasn't trying to send the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee a message Wednesday night.
The Redbirds' 3-point shooting and healthy dose of dunks sure felt like it, especially to UC Irvine.
Senior forward Deontae Hawkins went a career-best 6-of-6 outside the arc and scored 22 points as No. 1-seeded ISU downed the eighth-seeded Anteaters, 85-71, in an entertaining National Invitation Tournament first-round game before a lively Redbird Arena crowd of 5,124.
Hawkins sank three 3-pointers before the game was five minutes old as the Redbirds finished 13-of-25 from 3-point range. UC Irvine also sank 13 3-pointers in 30 attempts as the combined 26 baskets outside the arc tied a Redbird Arena record.
“I don't want to say 'prove (the NCAA wrong).' We were just playing for each other,” said Hawkins. “We were glad to have an opportunity to play with each other and not ending the season early.”
Paris Lee contributed 13 points and seven assists for the Redbirds, while MiKyle McIntosh added 13 points and eight rebounds and Phil Fayne had 11 points and seven rebounds.
ISU improved to 28-6 and advanced to face fourth-seeded Central Florida (22-11) at 6 p.m. Monday in a second-round game at Redbird Arena. UCF beat No. 5 Colorado, 79-74, on Wednesday.
The Redbirds didn't try to hide their hurt and frustration about being bypassed for the NCAA Tournament. However, that was difficult to tell by their performance Wednesday after shooting 52.5 percent from the field with a season-high 22 assists.
“Our senior leadership has been the key to our season the entire year and continues to be,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “If you look across the country in this tournament there have been a lot of 'upsets' because they don't have the leadership we have.
“We, as coaches, try to do our job as far as mindset and motivation, but in the end our leadership is why we played well tonight and all year.”
Lee knew before the game Hawkins would be ready.
“Going through layup line, I could tell his whole facial expression when he was, like, let's get this 'W,' ” said Lee. “That feeds off on the whole team because when we see Deontae going, it makes everyone want to go.”
The Redbirds were in attack mode from the opening tip. Defensively, ISU tried to force the tempo early by using full-court pressure that Muller said the players wanted to do.
“I've been preaching to be aggressive for a long time now,” said Muller. “It's contagious in some ways to see that ball go in.”
UC Irvine (21-15), the Big West Conference regular-season champion, was led by Jaron Martin's 24 points. Luke Nelson, the Big West Player of the Year, added 17 points. Both went 5-of-10 from 3-point range as the Anteaters hit 42.4 percent of their field goal attempts.
“Those two guards were really good and hit some incredible shots,” said Muller. “All you want to do on defense is force a team to take tough shots. If they make them or not, you can't control that.”
ISU, which led by nine at halftime, quickly expanded the lead to 58-40 after Hawkins and Lee sank back-to-back 3-pointers with 15:35 left.
Martin, a quick 5-10 senior, wasn't ready to call it a career yet. He scored 10 points as UC Irvine went on a 15-3 run to get within 61-55 with 11 minutes left.
Hawkins quickly answered with a 3-pointer. He struck again outside the arc as ISU increased the lead to 68-55.
“I wasn't looking for the ball. I didn't know it was down to six,” said Hawkins. “I just made a play. Again, credit my teammates for finding me.”
UC Irvine didn't get the deficit under 10 the rest of the way.
“There were times tonight we looked like they were running 5-on-0 offense, all the dunks they got on us,” said UC Irvine coach Russell Turner. “We have not given up as many dunks and open 3s all year. Tonight we gave up a lot of both. That's not a winning formula.
“Give Illinois State a lot of credit for that. If we had an opportunity to play these guys again I think we would be better.”
The Redbirds finished with four dunks, most coming on lob passes when UC Irvine was in a zone.
“One of the great things about postseason play is it's a lot of fun when you compete against teams that don't know your personnel,” said Muller. “They don't know your offense as well. It opens things up that haven't been opened up for a long time.”
The Redbirds came into the game ranked fourth nationally in field goal percentage defense at .377 while UC Irvine was sixth at .379.
That was difficult to tell in the first half, especially outside the arc. ISU shot 50 percent from the field in the first half, making 7 of 12 from 3-point range, while the Anteaters were 38.7 percent from the field but 8 of 14 on 3-pointers.
The Redbirds never trailed, although UC Irvine twice forged a tie. DJ Clayton's 3-pointer midway through the first half gave the Redbirds their first double-digit lead at 27-16.
ISU led 30-24 before going on an 11-1 run, capped by Lee's 12-foot bank shot, to build a 41-25 advantage with 3:02 left until halftime.
Three-pointers by Nelson and Martin in the final minute, the latter at the buzzer, drew the Anteaters within 43-34 at the break.
The Redbirds kept their home record perfect at 16-0 while winning their 22nd straight game at Redbird Arena. With students on spring break, the crowd was larger than anticipated, especially with an 8:30 p.m. start.
“Shout out to the crowd. They were locked in,” said Lee. “We pumped them up and they got loud. If we can get that going in NIT, that will help us out a lot.”