EVANSVILLE, Ind. — As Evansville was doing a victory lap around Roberts Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Illinois State’s basketball team was back in its locker room wondering what happened.
It didn’t take long to figure out.
“I thought we played really well, but there’s one category we were completely outmanned in,” said ISU coach Tim Jankovich.
Jankovich wouldn’t say what category, but it was easy to find on the stat sheet. Evansville shot 17 more free throws than the Redbirds and used a career-high 32 points from sophomore Colt Ryan to rally for a 73-67 win in Roberts Stadium’s final game before a crowd of 10,581.
ISU (12-18) finished in a ninth-place tie with Bradley at 4-14 in the Missouri Valley Conference standings. The Redbirds are the No. 9 seed in the MVC Tournament and meet No. 8 Southern Illinois in a 6:05 p.m. play-in game Thursday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Senior Tony Lewis, who contributed 12 points and nine rebounds, doesn’t believe the loss will affect ISU in St. Louis.
“We’ve got confidence and believe we can make a run,” said Lewis. “It’s just going to take the right mindset and the right attitude.”
Evansville (15-14, 9-9) trailed 37-32 at halftime. But the Purple Aces, with Jerry Sloan among their former standout players watching, used a 13-2 spurt to start the second half to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
ISU cut the gap to 60-58 on Jackie Carmichael’s 17-foot jumper with 7:09 left. The Redbirds had two chances to tie or take the lead, but committed a pair of turnovers on Carmichael’s traveling violation and an offensive foul by Austin Hill.
When Ryan got a steal and fed a streaking Kenneth Harris for a dunk, it was over. Evansville, which wore its throwback jerseys with short sleeves, enjoyed a 67-58 lead and basked in the applause for the final three minutes.
“This is what Evansville basketball is all about,” said Purple Aces’ coach Marty Simmons. “The fans have always been a big part of our program, and they really gave us a lift in the second half.”
Anthony Cousin also scored 12 points for ISU. John Wilkins added 10 points and five rebounds for ISU. Wilkins went 3 of 5 on 3-pointers as the Redbirds made 10 of 21 attempts outside the arc.
“We play well offensively for 35 of the 40 minutes,” said ISU senior Alex Rubin, as the Redbirds shot 47.9 percent from the field. “Against a good team in a hostile environment you have to play well for 40 minutes.”
The Redbirds appeared in deep trouble early. Hill picked up his second foul with 14:13 left in the first half and sat out until intermission. He was joined shortly on the bench by Blake Mishler (13:40) and Carmichael (9:36).
Jankovich wasn’t pleased with some of the calls and picked up a rare technical foul arguing Mishler’s second foul.
But the Redbirds hung tough. Five different players sank a 3-pointer in the first half. Rubin’s 3-pointer from the corner with 5:04 left started a 13-6 run before the break to put ISU ahead by five. Lewis had 10 points and seven rebounds in the first half.
“We played a tremendous first half, probably as well as we could have hoped for,” said Jankovich.
But after only three turnovers in the first half, ISU committed 12 in the second half. Six of the second-half turnovers were on offensive fouls. The Redbirds were whistled for 29 fouls in the game to Evansville’s 17.
ISU held the Valley’s leading scorer, Andrew Warren, to 10 points four days earlier in a 51-50 victory over Bradley. But Ryan, the league’s third-leading scorer with a 15.2 average, went 8 of 17 from the field, 3 of 6 outside the arc and 13 of 14 at the line.
“You can’t guard the free throw line. He was making his hay from there,” said Jankovich. “Unfortunately, we didn’t shoot a free throw (in the second half) until there were two minutes to go. That was a pretty tough pill to swallow.”
REDBIRD REPORT CARD
FRONT COURT – C+: Fouls kept Jackie Carmichael and Blake Mishler from getting anything going. Tony Lewis provided big first half (10 points, seven rebounds).
BACKCOURT – C: ISU shot the ball well from 3-point range, but could not stop Colt Ryan – especially at the free throw line.
BENCH – C+: Lewis, Anthony Cousin and Justin Clark gave solid production in relief of foul-strapped starters.
OVERALL – C: ISU needed to come out stronger in first five minutes after halftime. Now, it’s off to St. Louis to play Southern Illinois on Thursday.