ST. LOUIS — Milik Yarbrough sat on the bench for all but six minutes in the first half with two fouls.
Illinois State's junior forward made up for lost time after the intermission and helped ensure the Illinois Invitational will be played Saturday at Scottrade Center.
Yarbrough contributed 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists as the third-seeded Redbirds used a stellar defensive effort to hold off No. 6 Indiana State, 77-70, on Friday night in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament's final quarterfinal game.
“I just came out and played my game,” said Yarbrough. “I didn't try to force anything. I just let it come to me, find gaps in the defense and make easy plays for myself instead of just trying to force it and turn the ball over.”
ISU improved to 17-14 and advanced to Saturday's 5 p.m. semifinal game to face second-seeded Southern Illinois (20-12). Top-seed Loyola (26-5) meets No. 5 Bradley (20-12) in the first semifinal at 2:30 p.m. Both games will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
It is the first time in tourney history all four semifinal teams are from Illinois. ISU, Bradley and SIU all made the semifinals together in 1995. Loyola joined the Valley five years ago.
Keyshawn Evans, who turned his ankle in the second half but returned, added 17 points for ISU while Phil Fayne had 16 points and 10 rebounds. ISU's defense was the story, holding the Sycamores to 33.9 percent field goal shooting.
“The last seven games we've played before tonight when Phil has played, we're holding teams to 37 percent,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “The two games he was out, both teams shot over 45 percent. So it's been building.”
Guard Jordan Barnes led Indiana State (13-18), which beat ISU by 30 the last time the teams played on Jan. 20, with 25 points. But senior guard Brenton Scott, the Sycamores' second-leading scorer behind Barnes, had only three points (tying his season low) and went 0 of 14 from the field, including 0 of 12 from outside the arc.
“One of our main goals was to come out and play defense really well,” said Fayne. “We knew we had to be sharp and on point on defense.”
ISU led by 12 with seven minutes left before the Sycamores rallied.
Brandon Murphy's rebound basket started an 8-0 run by the Sycamores that cut the Redbirds' lead to 67-65 with 2:44 left. Yarbrough sank two free throws to end the Indiana State surge, but Tyreke Key answered by making a pair at the line.
Yarbrough, who had only two turnovers, gave ISU a four-point lead again by scoring on a drive with 1:14 left before Scott badly misfired a 3-point attempt. The Redbirds got the rebound and Evans was fouled with :53.8 showing. He sank both before Barnes hit a 3-pointer with :45.9 left to close the gap to 73-70.
Scott had a chance to tie the game, but missed a 3-pointer with 13 seconds left. Yarbrough was fouled and made both free throws with :9.7 showing. When Indiana State missed and Fayne got the rebound, the Redbirds were finally in the clear. Fayne sank two free throws for the final margin.
“We don't have a guy like some of these other teams in the league do (against Yarbrough) that's a really good matchup,” said Indiana State coach Greg Lansing. “We've got to try to switch up what we're doing. He's so good. Milik does it to the best defenders in the league, too.”
Yarbrough picked up his third foul early in the second half, going to the bench again. Madison Williams got his fourth foul with 16:14 left and ISU clinging to a 41-40 lead. That put Indiana State in the bonus already.
Williams went to the bench and Yarbrough came back in. It made an immediate difference. Yarbrough set up David Ndiaye for a dunk before Ndiaye scored in the low post. Yarbrough sank a jumper and ISU led, 47-42, with 14:28 left.
Qiydar Davis' three-point play got the Sycamores within 49-47 with 10:16 left. But the Redbirds went on a 12-4 run, capped by Fayne's dunk off a lob from Matt Hein, and had their biggest lead at 63-51 with 7:24 left.
The Redbirds knew Indiana State wasn't done yet, though.
“It's a game of runs,” said Yarbrough. “I just tried to be relaxed and make the right plays for myself and my teammates.”
ISU shot 48.2 percent from the field, going 8 of 23 from distance. Each team had 40 rebounds, while the Redbirds committed 10 turnovers.
“I'm proud of the guys. It was a battle,” said Muller. “We didn't play great, but we found a way. We played really, really hard. As always at this time of year, just find a way to win and move on. It was a good win for us.”
ISU split against SIU during the regular season. The Redbirds squandered a 14-point second-half lead in Carbondale on Jan. 13 as the Salukis rallied for a 74-70 win. ISU won the rematch in Normal on Feb. 8 by edging the Salukis, 76-68, in overtime.
“The last time we played them, Keyshawn did not play. The first time we played them Madison didn't play,” said Muller. “We'll see. We know it's going to be close, I can say that. We know it's going to be another tough, close game against another really good team.”
The Redbirds seem to finally be figuring out they can still win games even when their offense isn't razor sharp.
“We had two great practices before we came down here. They were amazing,” said Fayne. “We were defensively locked in to everything, and that's a big assist to us to be able to rebound and defend and then to be able to string out wins. Defense wins games.”