NORMAL — Junior guard Bryant Allen said Illinois State’s basketball team learned a valuable lesson two weeks ago in Peoria.
Don’t get complacent.
Even with road victories against Drake and then No. 16-ranked Creighton last week, Allen believes there remains “a sense of urgency” for the streaking Redbirds. Plus, there’s a little matter of revenge for their only loss in the last three weeks when Bradley downed the Redbirds, 83-77, on Jan. 29.
“We owe Bradley,” said Allen.
ISU, which has won six of its last seven games, gets a chance to even the score when the Interstate 74 rivals meet at 7:05 p.m. today at Redbird Arena in an important Missouri Valley Conference contest.
The Redbirds (15-10) and Braves (14-11) are tied for sixth place in the league at 6-7, just one game out of fourth with five left. The top six teams avoid the play-in round at the Valley Tournament in St. Louis on March 7.
Bradley fell behind, 25-9, against the Redbirds in Peoria. ISU still held a five-point lead with five minutes left before collapsing down the stretch.
“We relaxed and they started hitting big shots,” said Allen. “We’ve got to finish games off like we did at Creighton and Drake. We stayed in it together and everyone was locked in. We know once we’re locked in as a whole we’re tough.”
The Redbirds weren’t whole in the second half against Bradley. Tyler Brown suffered a sprained thumb in the first half. He played after the intermission, but was limited in what he could do. Meanwhile, Coach Dan Muller held out point guard Johnny Hill after he got a technical foul in the first half.
Bradley’s guard tandem of Walt Lemon Jr. and Dyricus Simms-Edwards feasted on ISU’s season-high 23 turnovers. They combined for nine of the Braves’ 13 steals, while Lemon scored a career-high 27 points.
Lemon and Simms-Edwards are the highest-scoring backcourt (28.0 points per game) in the Valley. They also are tops in the league and second nationally for steals (5.2 per game) by a pair of teammates, with Simms-Edwards ranking No. 6 individually at 2.88.
“Their ability to force turnovers is unique … you do that on and off the ball,” said Muller. “Because they have two guys they can put on some of your best perimeter players they not only limit their production but also force turnovers, and turnovers lead to points because they’re so fast.”
Lemon has developed into a borderline first-team all-league selection. The 6-foot-3 junior averages 17.5 points in league games, shooting 38.1 percent outside the arc, along with 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
Allen usually draws the Redbirds’ defensive assignment against the opposing point guard. He’s watched extra video in preparation for a second chance against Lemon.
“He’s left-handed, but likes to go right a lot. Sometimes it’s confusing as a defender,” said Allen, another lefty. “He’s strong going left and you think he’s going left because he’s left-handed, but he’ll go right. Now he’s got a pull-up game. It makes it tough for guys to guard him sometimes.”
Muller calls Lemon “an elite player in the country without question.” Bradley coach Geno Ford said it’s no accident.
“He’s in the gym all the time. He’s not on Twitter or Facebook. He’s constantly in the gym working on his game,” said Ford. “He spent a ton of time working on his pull-up jumper. Now he feels more comfortable shooting a pull-up jumper than anything else.”
ISU will have freshman Kaza Keane available to help against Lemon and Simms-Edwards. Keane missed the 75-72 win at Creighton on Saturday because of a concussion suffered near the end of the Drake game three days earlier, but has practiced the last two days without problems.