NORMAL — Illinois State's basketball team showed plenty of energy, especially on the defensive side, from the opening tip Saturday night.
Then Madison Williams really ignited his teammates and fired up a Redbird Arena crowd of 5,024 early in the second half against Missouri Valley Conference newcomer Valparaiso.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore drove down the lane and threw down a tomahawk dunk over 6-8 Mileek McMillan. Williams was given a technical foul for taunting, but it didn't matter as the Redbirds never let up and turned back the Crusaders, 76-65.
“That dunk charged me up for the rest of the game. I wasn't a lick tired. It started with that,” said ISU junior Keyshawn Evans. “It was so passionate. All five of us were going crazy. It fed on to the defensive end and we wanted to keep getting stops.”
Phil Fayne was unstoppable inside, making 11 of 12 shots and scoring a game-high 24 points as the Redbirds improved to 11-11 overall and 5-5 in the league. ISU is only a game out of second place in the jumbled Valley standings heading into Tuesday's 7 p.m. game at Missouri State.
Milik Yarbrough filled up the stat sheet with 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals for the Redbirds, while Evans added 17 points. ISU shot 48.3 percent from the field despite making only 4 of 23 3-point attempts.
After allowing runs of 17-0 and 25-0 in the two previous games during losses to Indiana State and Northern Iowa, ISU played what coach Dan Muller called “probably the best defensive performance we've had in the conference season.”
Valley newcomer Valparaiso (11-12, 2-8), making its first-ever trip to Redbird Arena, shot 37.7 percent from the field, missing their first 13 attempts outside the arc before connecting on three late.
The Redbirds also grabbed a 44-29 rebounding advantage, easily its biggest margin of the season, while committing 15 turnovers.
Even when ISU went more than five minutes without scoring late in the first half, missing nine shots, Valparaiso only scored two points. Then ISU finished the first half on a 10-3 run, taking a 34-23 lead into the locker room.
“Anyone who watched the game could see we played harder and with more energy — 50-50 balls, diving on the floor — than we have in a long time,” said Muller. “We had one guy in particular with a special night with Phil. When we win a game, having a 19-20 point lead (in the second half) and don't shoot well from 3, I don't know if we've had a night like that.”
Fayne made his first eight shots before missing. He sank the next three before leaving the game with 4:19 left when he banged his left knee scrambling for a loose ball.
The 6-9 junior forward pronounced himself fine after the game.
“Coach always tells me to dive for the ball, so that was a lesson,” he said. “I didn't dive for the ball and everyone else did and ran into my knee. It's a lesson. Get on the floor first.”
Fayne said Valpo's 7-2 Derrik Smits and 7-foot Jaume Sorolla were “two big dudes … when they put up their hands they were like skyscrappers.” But Muller said the Redbirds thought Fayne's speed and quickness would be difficult for the Crusaders.
“My teammates were finding me and they believed in me,” said Fayne. “They were like, ‘we'll keep giving you the ball and you make these shots.’ They gave me total confidence and I was able keep going thanks to them.”
The Redbirds' lead was 36-25 early in the second half. Then Williams sent everyone into a frenzy with a dunk that reminded long-time ISU fans of Osiris Eldridge.
“That was big time. It was kind of like parting the Red Sea there. It kind of opened up,” said Muller. “He went in there and made a terrific play. I thought the technical foul was the right call. I thought he got fouled on the dunk. That was my issue. I was happy he could have a play like that and it brought a lot of energy to our team, not that we needed it.”
Valpo cut the margin into single digits a short time later at 38-29, but Evans followed with a 3-pointer from the wing with 17:16 left. ISU never let the Crusaders get closer and built the margin as high as 19 at 61-42 on another Evans 3-pointer with 6:43 left.
“I thought for the most part in the first half we were competitive and executing our assignments,” said Valpo coach Matt Lottich. “I thought at that end of the first half they went on a 7-0 run and were up 11 at halftime. It just seemed like we were deflated after that point ... tonight the ball did not go in the basket. I thought we had pretty good looks.”
Bakari Evelyn made Valpo's first 3-pointer with 2:04 left. The sophomore guard finished with 20 points to lead the Crusaders, while Smits had 17 points and senior guard Tevonn Walker added 16.