CHICAGO — Keyshawn Evans and William Tinsley were bombing in 3-pointers from all over Gentile Arena on Saturday, giving Illinois State a chance to upset the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champions.
For 37 minutes, Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer couldn't get a 3-point shot to drop. However, the Redbirds' luck didn't hold out.
Richardson sank two 3-pointers and Custer added another, which was his only basket of the game, as Loyola held off the Redbirds, 68-61, in the regular-season finale before a sold-out Gentile Arena crowd of 4,963.
“We fought hard and played hard, but we did not play well in a lot of ways although a couple guys shot it well,” said ISU coach Dan Muller, as the game featured 11 ties and nine lead changes. “To beat them you have to play well. (Cameron) Krutwig killed us, and our bigs got dominated on both ends of the court, and that's disappointing.”
Tinsley connected on 5 of 10 shots outside the arc and scored a season-high 21 points. Evans was 6 of 10 on 3-pointers en route to 20 points. However, the Redbirds committed 20 turnovers, several at crucial times after taking a 47-41 lead midway through the second half.
“Some of our turnover games are maddening,” said Muller. “Turnover-wise, I have not done a very good job coaching ball care this year.”
The loss dropped ISU's overall record to 16-14 as the Redbirds finished the league with a 10-8 mark, tied for third place with Drake. ISU will get the No. 3 seed and face No. 6 Indiana State in the MVC Tournament's 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal game Friday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
The Valley race was expected to go down to the wire this season, but Loyola (25-5) had other ideas. The Ramblers' 15-3 mark won the league by four games over second-place Southern Illinois.
Krutwig, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound freshman center, scored 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting to pace Loyola. Richardson and Donte Ingram, two seniors who have been with coach Porter Moser for four years, capped their home careers with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Custer, a junior point guard, likely will be the Larry Bird Trophy winner as the MVC's most valuable player when league awards are announced Tuesday. Although Custer had seven assists, he missed his first nine shots before nailing a 3-pointer with :56.8 left that gave the Ramblers breathing room and a 64-59 lead.
The Ramblers cut down the nets and received the MVC trophy in front of their delirious fans afterward. It was a celebration 33 years in the making, with the school's last outright league title coming in 1985 in the old Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
“It was a great basketball game,” said Moser, who was the Redbirds' coach from 2003-07. “Illinois State played with amazing intensity. We were not shooting the ball well, but give a lot of credit for that to Illinois State. They're long and I thought played their zone really hard.”
ISU trailed 41-38 before going on a 9-0 run, capped by Evans' back-to-back 3-pointers, to take a 47-41 lead with 9:51 left.
However, the Redbirds went seven straight possessions without scoring, including four turnovers, as Loyola took a 51-47 lead. But ISU again went ahead, 52-51, on Tinsley's fast break lay-in with 4:43 left.
That was the Redbirds' last lead. Phil Fayne scored inside to cut the gap to one before Richardson sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 58-54 lead with 2:21 left. Tinsley answered that with a 3-pointer before Richardson hit again from outside the arc.
Fayne's rebound basket got ISU within 61-59 before Custer connected from the wing and that proved to be the Redbirds' undoing.
“He's a Player of the Year candidate. I wasn't surprised he made that shot at the end,” said Evans. “A lot of his shots went in and out. When he hit it down I was upset, but not surprised. He had missed them all game.”
Loyola, which came in shooting 41.5 percent from outside the arc, was 4 of 24 on 3-pointers until Richardson and Custer delivered.
“I did think our zone was really good, but at the end there you have to lock in and can't have a defensive breakdown, and we literally did two things you're not supposed to do,” said Muller.
Evans said battling the Ramblers to the wire didn't give ISU any more confidence heading to St. Louis than the Redbirds already had.
“I feel we're back healthy,” said Evans. “Guys are feeling like themselves and we're playing hard. It's all good. Once we get focused and everyone gets their flow back and we start taking care of the ball, we'll be good.”
Fayne finished with nine points and five rebounds, while Milik Yarbrough added nine points, seven rebounds and six assists along with six turnovers. ISU shot 41.8 percent from the field compared to Loyola's 42.6 percent and the Ramblers grabbed a 36-34 rebounding advantage.
Tinsley, a junior college transfer and Ridgeview High School graduate, has found his shooting stroke. In the last six games, he has made 21 of 48 from distance, and that includes a 1-of-8 outing at Bradley.
“I've been working on my shot hard,” he said. “I was rocky in games at the beginning and wanted to prove myself. I didn't lose confidence in my shot.”
Tinsley believes the best is yet to come for the Redbirds.
“We really competed hard,” he said. “I have no doubt we can make a big run at Arch Madness. I'm still confident. At their place (Loyola) it's always hard to play, so we're good.”