NORMAL — A season-high crowd of 5,265 Redbird Arena was on its feet Thursday night.
Anthony Cousin didn’t notice any of them as he stepped to the free throw line six times in the last minute of a nail-biting Missouri Valley Conference basketball opener.
“In practice it’s just me, myself and the ball. I felt comfortable knocking them down,” said Illinois State’s junior guard.
Cousin made five straight free throws to give ISU the cushion it needed to hold off hard-charging Northern Iowa, 65-61. The Redbirds snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Panthers, but it wasn’t without drama.
ISU (9-3) led 59-46 after freshman Nic Moore’s 3-pointer with 5:55 left. UNI (10-3) then went on a 12-0 run as ISU committed four turnovers and missed two shots.
The Panthers even had a chance to take the lead. Anthony James, who scored a game-high 21 points, put up a 12-foot jumper inside the lane. John Wilkins came over and got a piece of the shot. The ball ended up with Cousin, who was fouled.
That was the first of three one-and-bonus opportunities in the final 60 seconds for Cousin.
“I’ve been in that situation before and felt like I’m an experienced player, and that’s what experienced players do — knock them down it counts,” said Cousin, who finished with 11 points.
After several close calls against UNI the last three years, including a pair of two-point losses last season, the Redbirds finally got over the hump against their chief Valley nemesis.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” said ISU junior Jackie Carmichael, who finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. “We weren’t concerned what the record was between us. We just come out, play basketball and try to get the win.”
Carmichael wasn’t the only Redbird with a double-double. Sophomore Jon Ekey scored all 11 of his points in the second half, making three 3-pointers, and also grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds.
Moore added 13 points. ISU’s second-leading scorer, Tyler Brown, has been suffering from a virus all week and scored only two points in 18 minutes.
ISU shot 51.1 percent from the field (24 of 47) and 50 percent on 3-pointers (7 of 14). That normally translates into a comfortable win, but 16 turnovers led to 20 UNI points.
“We did not handle it well (late) between turnovers and laboring to score,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich. “But, in the big picture, if you ask me would I rather win by 13 or have them cut it down to one and win the game, I would rather have that because a lot more of our players gain from that experience and that feeling and having to deal with that pressure.”
Ekey, who made two 3-pointers early in the second half as ISU scored the first eight points after intermission to break free from a 28-all halftime tie, didn’t sense much panic from his teammates in the final five minutes.
“We have had that happen a few times. It means more because it’s Valley play,” said Ekey. “We settled down, took a few timeouts and coach really let us know what we needed to do and what we had to run.”
UNI played behind almost the entire game. The Panthers trailed 11-2 early before forcing a tie at the break and then falling behind by 13.
“I told the guys after the game no one in the locker room likes the outcome,” said UNI coach Ben Jacobson. “But we’re down 13 after being down (nine) in the first half, and we have the ball down one and we get it to the right guy in the right spot with a chance to take the lead.”
Jankovich lauded Cousin’s defense on James, who was 9-of-25 from the field. The ISU coach also gave credit to Wilkins for holding Jake Koch, who came in averaging 11.8 points, scoreless.
ISU’s last win over the Panthers came in a 2008 MVC Tournament quarterfinal game in St. Louis. None of the current Redbirds were on that team.
“We’ve had more close losses to them any other (team),” said Jankovich. “I don’t think one guy in there who had played them felt we could not beat them.”
The Redbirds travel to face Southern Illinois at 2:05 p.m. Sunday in Carbondale.
Redbird Report Card
FRONTCOURT – A—: Jackie Carmichael keeps chugging out double-doubles, while John Wilkins’ defense held Jake Koch without a point.
BACKCOURT – B: ISU nearly lost game with late turnovers. Anthony Cousin showed coolness at line in final minute after hounding Anthony James most of the game.
BENCH – D: Tyler Brown was limited because of the flu. Johnny Hill provided highlight of the night with tremendous dunk late in the first half, but UNI reserves outscored Redbirds, 26-4.
OVERALL – B: This could have been a demoralizing loss after holding a big lead, but Redbirds averted potential disaster. Getting road win at SIU on Sunday would be another confidence boost.