Outside the Illinois State locker room Friday, the words “survive and advance” were thrown out to ISU athletic director Larry Lyons.
“That’s what Friday is about,” Lyons said, smiling.
Moments earlier, top-seeded ISU had achieved that at Scottrade Center, downing stubborn Evansville, 80-69, in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
Yet, Friday also is about “wear and tear” when on a three-games-in-three-days path to the title. ISU was a winner in that regard as well.
Two years ago, when the Redbirds advanced to the championship game, their starters played a collective 144 minutes in a quarterfinal win (also over Evansville). The number inched up to 146 in the semifinals and grew to 152 in the final.
ISU roared to a 36-22 halftime lead in the title game, then got blitzed in the second half in a 69-60 loss to Northern Iowa.
Was fatigue a factor?
Not the only one, but it was among them.
Friday, the Redbird starters played a combined 131 minutes. None was on the floor for more than 29. That guarantees nothing, other than ISU should be fresh for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. semifinal against Southern Illinois.
The Redbirds got 26 minutes from DJ Clayton, 20 from Keyshawn Evans, 13 from David Ndiaye and 10 from Madison Williams. That, folks, is about as good as it gets on a quarterfinal Friday.
They were quality minutes, particularly from Evans (16 points, two assists, four steals) and Clayton (12 points, four rebounds). But mostly they were minutes that Paris Lee, Tony Wills, Phil Fayne, Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh could rest and recharge.
In baseball, managers value pitchers who eat innings. Friday, ISU’s bench gobbled up significant chunks of the game, multiple times with only one starter on the floor.
“A lot of these guys (starters) have been playing a lot of minutes all year,” said Clayton, a 6-6 junior guard. “For them to be able to take time off and rejuvenate on the bench, it’s going to help us throughout the rest of the tournament.”
That may not be clear until Sunday should ISU still be playing.
For now, it was enough that Hawkins and his fellow starters knew what it “could” mean. They spent some of their idle time standing and cheering for the guys on the court.
“It’s huge for us,” Hawkins said. “It’s good for the next game because this is like AAU … you play, then the next day you play, then the next day you play.
“We’re just fortunate to have those guys to come in and play with a chip on their shoulder.”
Clayton, a member of the Valley’s All-Bench team, provided the first spark Friday. He scored nine points in a 15-5 run that turned a 17-15 deficit into a 30-22 lead.
Included was his first 3-pointer since late January.
“The coaching staff trusts me to shoot 3s,” he said. “I feel confident in my shot, but it’s been a while so it felt good to see one go in.”
The bench loved it. That is, the starters on the bench.
Soon, they returned to the court with a cushion.
“They don’t want to have to be like, ‘God, we have to go back in and try to bring it back up to a lead,’” Clayton said. “They want to be able to trust us on the floor.”
Trust is a big part of all this. Coach Dan Muller trusts the reserves enough to give them minutes.
That pays off in any game, but especially when there is another one the next day.
“We all take the challenge and we all try to be a threat out there, no matter who’s on the court,” Wills said. “Definitely, we all trust in each other.”
That includes Williams, a freshman who provided defense and a mid-range jumper during his valuable 10 minutes.
“Coach always tells us to be ready to enter the battle,” he said. “So we just do what we’re supposed to do.”
One minute at a time.
On this day, they added up.