NORMAL — An eight-point halftime lead was down to one Wednesday night three and a half minutes into the second half. Illinois State’s basketball team was in need of a lift in its first-round College Basketball Invitational game against Morehead State.
Junior guard Daishon Knight obliged, sinking a 3-pointer and adding two free throws moments later to kick-start a 19-9 surge, giving the Redbirds a 57-46 lead on the way to a 77-67 victory at Redbird Arena.
A crowd of 2,080 watched Knight score a team-high 18 points as ISU (17-15) advanced to a quarterfinal home game on Monday night against Texas A&M. The Aggies (18-15), who downed Wyoming on Wednesday night, will be the first Southeastern Conference team to play at Redbird Arena. The start time will be announced later.
“We came down and we ran motion and we swung the ball and screened for each other,” Knight said of the key run. “We penetrate and look for the open guy and it was me that time (on the 3-pointer).
"We hadn’t played for a while, but once we got the flow back right, it felt good.”
ISU’s pivotal run included a scrappy rebound by freshman Tony Wills that led to two free throws. Nick Zeisloft also drilled one of his three 3-pointers in the run.
Bobby Hunter had nine of his 16 points after halftime to help the Redbirds break away from the Eagles (20-14).
“We wanted to get stops which would lead to easy buckets,” Hunter said. “We did a great job of crashing (the boards). They have some big guys. They can’t get every rebound. We got some loose balls and it was good for us to get points off of loose balls and things like that.”
Zeisloft added 13 points and freshman center Reggie Lynch had 12 points and eight rebounds for ISU, which played without second-leading scorer Zach Lofton.
The sophomore guard was suspended for the game by head coach Dan Muller and on the bench in street clothes. Asked if Lofton would be back Monday, Muller replied, “I’m not sure yet.”
“I’m very excited how my team played,” Muller said. “I thought we played with great energy and passion. Defensively we were terrific and I thought we fought extremely hard on the boards. That was a good win against a very good team.”
ISU was 8 of 20 from 3-point range as part of a 38.5 percent shooting night overall. The Redbirds stayed within three of the taller Eagles on the boards (40-37). ISU was 29 of 40 from the free throw line to 13 of 21 for Morehead State.
“You look and we shot 38 percent (from the field) but we got to the foul line so much,” Muller said. “That was an emphasis for us tonight. They’re a very aggressive team. That was huge for us.”
ISU led 33-25 at the half fueled by a 14-2 run over a three-minute stretch. With the game tied at 15-all, Knight and Zeisloft hit 3-pointers to start the surge.
Wills scored five straight ISU points on a driving basket and a 3-pointer before a conventional three-point play by Hunter capped the run for a 29-17 lead with 4:23 left in the half.
Morehead State closed the gap to six on two occasions before a basket by John Jones 36 seconds before halftime made it 33-25.
The 6-9 Jones had six points and four rebounds in 17 minutes, including 12 in the first half with Lynch in foul trouble. It was Jones’ first action since breaking his right foot on Jan. 25.
“John was great,” Muller said. “His physicality helps us. I thought for his first game back in seven weeks he was terrific.”
ISU was outrebounded 20-14 in the first half but had only three turnovers to 10 for Morehead State.
“We didn’t continue to dominate the glass (in the second half) like we normally do,” Morehead State coach Sean Woods said. “We gave them an offensive rebound on a foul shot … little things that we normally don’t do.”
Kareem Storey had 19 points to lead the Eagles, who shot 38 percent from the field.
Muller called playing Texas A&M “a great opportunity.”
“Texas A&M is a terrific team. I’ve watched them a little bit this year,” Muller said. “Of course I’ll watch them more now. An SEC team coming in here on a Monday night … hopefully we’ll have a terrific crowd and our guys will be excited.
“Tournament play is exciting because you have to win to keep playing. That’s a little bit of pressure, but it can also free you up a little bit. I thought our guys handled that extremely well tonight, which for my team is very important."