NORMAL — Evansville’s seniors had not won at Redbird Arena and knew Friday night was their last chance. They didn’t leave disappointed.
D.J. Balentine scored 25 points while Egidijus Mockevicius contributed 13 points and 20 rebounds as the Purple Aces earned a 66-55 victory over Illinois State in a Missouri Valley Conference basketball game before a crowd of 5,148.
“It was an ugly game by us in a lot of ways,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “We just didn’t play the right way offensively, which we’ve worked so hard on that. Credit Evansville, they had something to do with that. I thought we had guys who kind of looked like we did before Christmas, which is disappointing.”
ISU (9-10, 3-3), which lost its third straight game, was led by DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Paris Lee with 12 points each. The Redbirds shot a season-low 30.7 percent from the field (23 of 75) and went 6 of 31 outside the arc.
“We did not have a good offensive rhythm, and we never got them out of their rhythm,” said Lee.
The Redbirds outrebounded the Aces, 44-35, led by Deontae Hawkins’ 10. ISU grabbed 20 offensive boards, but only had 13 second-chance points.
“I thought we played hard if you look at the rebounding effort and the turnovers we forced,” said Muller, as Evansville committed 16 turnovers. “We certainly did not play very smart and had a bunch of guys who did not play well offensively.”
Evansville (16-3, 5-1) took a 35-29 halftime lead. ISU cut the gap to 47-43 with 9:15 left, but couldn’t get closer the rest of the way as the Purple Aces won at Redbird Arena for the first time since 2011. Balentine, Mockevicius and another senior, Adam Wing, accounted for 49 points.
“I’m sure they had a little extra motivation to try harder, but that’s because of the respect for Illinois State,” said Evansville coach Marty Simmons.
Mockevicius blocked only one shot, but the number he altered was substantial. Every time the Redbirds got the ball inside they knew the 6-foot-10 Lithuanian, the nation’s leading rebounder, was close by.
“I think he affected a lot of shots,” said Hawkins, who was 3 of 15 from the field. “We were not going in there with the mindset of going to the rim and throwing it up and thinking we were going to get fouled.”
Evansville came into the game shooting 52.3 percent from the field, the third best mark in the country. The Aces finished at 50 percent (22 of 44), including 5 of 12 outside the arc. Evansville also made 17 of 27 free throws compared to the Redbirds’ 3 of 4.
Wing added 11 points for the Aces, while Jaylon Brown had 10.
Lee’s jumper cut Evansville’s lead to 37-33 with 18:49 left. The Redbirds then went 1 of 7 from field and committed five turnovers as the Aces took a 46-35 lead with 12:53 left.
MiKyle McIntosh split a pair of free throws, the Redbirds’ first of the game, as ISU got within 47-43 with 9:15 left. Mislav Brzoja stopped ISU’s momentum with a 3-pointer and Wing followed with a layup.
“That was a killer,” said Muller of Brzoja’s 3-pointer. “We had energy going with a dunk and a bucket. We had some stops in a row there and had a defensive breakdown, and he hits a 3 and clearly we never recovered from that.”
ISU couldn’t get closer than seven the rest of the way. The Redbirds shot 27.8 percent in the second half.
“We cut into the lead, and they punched us back in the mouth and we didn’t respond the right way,” said Lee. “We got hit and stayed down.”
ISU took 31 more shots than the Aces, but made only one more basket.
“I thought at times we were active (defensively) and other times they missed shots they’re going to make. We were pretty fortunate,” said Simmons. “They put you in a bind a little bit with the lineups they put out there.
"We hadn’t started in a zone in nine years, but when you’ve got McIntosh and Hawkins out there it makes it tough.”
Tony Wills’ 3-pointer gave the Redbirds their biggest lead of the first half at 23-19. Evansville followed with a 16-4 run, as ISU went 2-of-9 from the field, to gain a 35-29 lead at the break.
Balentine, who played much of the half with two fouls, scored 15 points as the Aces shot 59.1 percent (13 of 22) in the first 20 minutes. ISU hit only 34.2 percent (13 of 38), including 3 of 13 outside the arc, but benefited from 10 Evansville turnovers.
McIntosh and Lee each scored eight points in the first half for ISU, which didn’t shoot a free throw.
The Redbirds face Bradley at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Carver Arena in Peoria.