Tony Wills found a corner seat and slowly slipped off his shoes. DJ Clayton took an ice pack from athletic trainer John Munn and applied it to his hip/back. Deontae Hawkins sat on a bench and leaned against the wall in a gray sweatshirt, quietly fielding a reporter’s questions.
This wasn’t the jubilant postgame scene Illinois State’s basketball team had envisioned for Sunday. Shots misfired, free throws clanked off the rim, the rhythm and flow of Saturday were nowhere to be found.
‘It happens,” said sophomore guard Keyshawn Evans.
That it happened now is a problem.
ISU’s 71-51 loss to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game lacked cosmetic value at a time that matters. While any loss leaves a bad taste, this one left a bad impression.
A national television audience and, presumably, members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, saw ISU’s winningest team ever on one of its worst days.
What that will mean on Selection Sunday is anyone’s guess. Few things in life are as unpredictable as NCAA at-large bids.
Just know that ISU’s unsightly loss won’t help.
Thus, as Wichita State and its fans celebrated on the Scottrade Center court, with music blaring and the crowd roaring, the Redbirds were left to make their case.
A team built around defense was left to defend its résumé, which includes a 27-6 record and a top-30 RPI.
“I definitely think we should be in,” Wills said softly. “I think we have some big wins. I think this team is really special. It’s the best team I’ve ever been on and I don’t want to be done playing.”
At worst the Redbirds will be a high seed in the National Invitation Tournament. Some years that would have been a comfort.
Not for this team.
Veterans Wills, Hawkins, Paris Lee and MiKyle McIntosh have poured four years into this season, intent on ending ISU’s 19-year NCAA Tournament drought.
That may still happen, and in reality it should despite the wreckage of Sunday. This team is more deserving than a 14-loss team from a power conference, but you and me don’t have a say in it.
Neither do the guys in that quiet locker room, the hardest part of a difficult day.
“We just have to pray and have faith that we get in,” Hawkins said. “We had an outstanding season. We didn’t get the automatic bid that we wanted, but we played some great basketball this year. I’m proud of all of these guys. I wouldn’t have wanted to go to war with anybody but these guys.”
The warrior of the bunch Sunday was the 6-foot Lee. The league’s Most Valuable Player willed his team to within striking distance at halftime (33-25) and did what he could to hold off the inevitable in the second half.
He didn’t have much help on a day ISU shot a season-worst 29 percent from the field, went 6 of 28 from 3-point range and made just 11 of 19 free throws.
Throw in three second-half technical fouls — two on Hawkins and one on McIntosh — and it was not what you want with the nation’s eyes upon you.
Credit the Shockers, who are long and talented and defended the Redbirds well.
“They played a very good game, but I think it was just us not hitting the shots that we usually do,” Clayton said. “We were getting some looks that we really like in our offense and we just weren’t I knocking them down.”
The task now is to regroup and make it through a long, arduous week in which conference tournament outcomes largely will determine ISU’s NCAA fate.
Talking heads will poke holes in the Redbirds’ résumé, but they cannot erase a 17-1 Valley co-championship with Wichita State.
“I mean, we lost one game in conference, same as them (the Shockers),” Evans said. “Besides the two Wichita games I can’t remember the last time we lost a game. We’ve only lost to them since I don’t know when. That would probably be my argument.”
It’s a good one.
Yet, in March, one bad day can make “good” not good enough.
That would be a shame.