The final seconds of the first half Saturday ultimately meant nothing in regard to the outcome of the game. Yet, they said everything about the way the home team wants to play basketball. Or, in fact, is conditioned to play.
The freshman point guard passed when all but one guy in Redbird Arena expected him to shoot. The junior forward looked for a pass when even his defender assumed there would be none.
The resulting bounce pass from Kaza Keane to Jon Ekey led to a buzzer-beating dunk, the perfect cap to an 18-2 run.
The basket extended Illinois State’s lead to 44-28 at halftime. Without it, the Redbirds still would have throttled Austin Peay by 24 points.
That’s OK. Telling moments don’t always come with the game on the line.
This one began with a Nick Zeisloft 3-point attempt bouncing long off the rim. Keane gathered the ball in with time melting away.
“I looked at the clock and I saw there was like 4.3 (seconds) left,” Keane said. “My dad always taught me to learn how to use the clock.”
Keane dribbled to his left. He was free from about 15 feet.
“Let it fly,” we all thought.
“I tried to get Ekey’s defender to step up and think I’m going to shoot because everybody usually does shoot,” Keane said. “When he stepped up, I put it in there.”
On some teams the ball would have trickled out of bounds. The intended target would have been as much a spectator as the 5,119 in the seats.
Ekey was ready.
He’s learned to always be ready.
“Kaza is a pass-first kind of guy, so I knew he was going to be passing somewhere,” Ekey said. “When I saw the two big guys move up — they probably thought he was going to shoot — I knew he’d probably dump it down to me.
“I was just trying to jump as fast as I could and reach out there.”
It was further evidence of a growing chemistry between Keane and Ekey. The two have joked about how they are frequently on the same wavelength.
“Me and Ekey … we kind of talk to each other through our minds,” Keane said.
It’s why Ekey sprints down the lane when Keane has the ball on the wing, or why he races to the side when Keane is driving the middle.
“I always try to be in an open spot for him so we can make a good play,” Ekey said. “We just work off of each other.”
It says something about their basketball IQs, but also is indicative of the mindset on Dan Muller’s first ISU team. If you work hard and get open, you’ll get the ball.
Saturday, point guards Johnny Hill and Keane each had six assists. The Redbirds had 18 assists on 34 baskets, close to their average of 18 assists and 30 field goals per game.
“On some teams I’ve played on you’re working hard on one side of the floor and the ball never gets over there,” Ekey said. “With us, we know if you’re going to set a screen or get screened, someone on the other side of the floor will always be looking for you.
“No one is looking each other off. Everyone is playing together, and that’s huge for our team.”
It leads to dunks instead of 15-foot jumpers. The 6-1 Keane enjoys being the setup man. He’ll leave the dunks to the 6-7 Ekey and others.
“If I could dunk … I would love to dunk, but I can’t,” Keane said, smiling. “I like making the nice pass more than making the nice shot.”
No matter how much time is on the clock.