NORMAL — Phil Fayne didn't sulk after being benched early in the second half Wednesday during a 25-point loss at Drake. He even found some magic at the free throw line Sunday.
Good thing for Illinois State, too, which needed every free throw that Fayne made.
Fayne scored 23 points, including a 9-of-10 effort from the line. The 6-foot-9 junior forward scored seven straight points after Missouri State took a late lead as ISU held off the Bears, 72-68, in a Missouri Valley Conference basketball game before a Redbird Arena crowd of 4,344.
“I just knew that (Drake) game was behind us and we had two good practices,” said Fayne, who made 1 of 9 free throws in ISU's last home game. “We knew we had another game ahead of us and really had to challenge the team coming in to play.”
Milik Yarbrough contributed 23 points, four assists and four steals as ISU improved to 9-7 overall and 3-1 in the Valley while handing preseason favorite Missouri State (13-4, 3-1) its first league loss. Drake is the league's lone undefeated team at 4-0.
Ronnie Rousseau, who came off the bench with J.T. Miller to spark the Bears' second-half comeback, scored on a drive to put Missouri State ahead, 62-60, with 2:19 left.
“We buckled down and kept executing,” said Yarbrough. “We did what we usually do, go to me off the ball screen with Phil and let Phil roll. They left Phil open, so I kept throwing it to him.”
Fayne scored on a lob dunk from Keyshawn Evans before Yarbrough set up Fayne for a three-point play and another inside basket. That gave ISU a 67-64 lead as Missouri State called timeout with 45 seconds left.
The Redbirds used a man-to-man defense the entire game before coach Dan Muller switched to a zone for the game's biggest possession. Rousseau missed a tough 3-point attempt from the wing as ISU's Isaac Gassman grabbed the rebound.
“They scored two or three times in a row, so we went zone and got that big stop with a contested 3,” said Muller. “It threw them off a little bit.”
Yarbrough made two free throws for a five-point lead with 15 seconds left and the Redbirds sank three more free throws to put the game away.
“We found a way to make enough big plays down the stretch on both ends,” said Muller. “I'm very disappointed in our rebounding effort in the second half. I'm very disappointed in the number of defensive breakdowns still, but I did see improvement not just from the last game but what we've seen (lately). We won the game because we made free throws and took care of the ball.”
ISU sank 20 of 25 free throws and committed a season-low six turnovers after having 52 in the previous three games.
The Redbirds led 38-29 at halftime thanks to a 17-16 rebounding advantage, which included eight offensive boards. But ISU was blanked on the offensive glass and outrebounded, 24-10, in the second half.
There were 13 NBA scouts who received credentials to the game, mostly to watch Missouri State standout Alize Johnson. The 6-9 senior forward, the preseason MVC Player of the Year, sank three 3-pointers in the first four minutes, but was held in check by the Redbirds the rest of the way.
Johnson finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, his 11th double-double of the season. Rousseau and J.T. Miller, a pair of senior guards, scored 16 points each, with Miller also grabbing 11 rebounds.
The Bears were outscored 23-7 on points off turnovers.
“You cannot turn the ball over 18 times and expect to win … we lost the game in the first half,” said Missouri State coach Paul Lusk. “We knew Illinois State would be ready to go after their last game.”
Fayne was especially ready to go. He went 7 of 10 from the field and made nine straight free throws before missing his last attempt with 1.5 seconds left.
“There's never a doubt about Phil and his heart and what he wants and his pride and how much he cares about this team. I'm not surprised,” said Muller. “He felt bad, which you want in players when they play poorly and it's their fault. You want them to have self awareness and accept it.”
ISU scored the last seven points of the first half to take a 38-29 lead at the break. Fayne's three-point play, set up by a perfect high-low pass from Taylor Bruninga, gave the Redbirds their biggest lead at 43-33 with 17:16 left.
Missouri State kept chipping its way back. Miller, a graduate transfer from Howard, gave the Bears a 57-56 lead on a rebound basket when no ISU player boxed off on the weak side with 4:39 left.
The Redbirds missed several wide-open 3-point looks and were 4 of 17 from the field in the second half before deciding to go inside. Yarbrough scored in the low post for a 60-all tie before the Redbirds found Fayne free near the basket on their next three possessions.
ISU faces Loyola at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Redbird Arena.