Illinois State’s basketball team huddled at one point in the second half Saturday. Noise reverberated inside Redbird Arena from a season-high crowd of nearly 7,000. Music blared over the P.A. system.
Matt Hein was determined to be heard over it all.
“I screamed so loud, ‘Great job Elijah!’” Hein said.
Elijah is Redbird freshman point guard Elijah Clarance. His first season in Normal has been a trying one. A stress fracture and severe blisters sidelined him for about 12 weeks. Since his return, he has played sparingly in some games, quality minutes in others and, most recently, not at all in Tuesday’s win at Missouri State.
Like ISU legend Doug Collins, seated at courtside across from the Redbird bench, Clarance was a spectator for the first half Saturday as well.
No one figured to call his name, let alone scream it.
Yet, after junior starter Keyshawn Evans went out late in the first half with a knee injury, ISU assistant coach Brian “Penny” Collins and head coach Dan Muller each had a halftime chat with Clarance.
“Be ready,” he said of the message. “Keyshawn might not play, so just come in, be aggressive and play under control.”
His team won, holding off Evansville, 75-71.
Perhaps it wins without Clarance, but on a day ISU needed contributions from nearly everyone in uniform, Clarance did his part.
And as Hein’s strained vocal cords will attest, the 6,923 folks in the stands weren’t the only ones cheering for him.
“It was huge for us,” Hein said of Clarance’s 11 second-half minutes, which included three points, one steal, a late key assist and, most important, no turnovers.
“The older guys, myself included, take him kind of under our wing. We’ve helped him just progress. We’ve told him to keep his head up, that it is just his freshman year. He’s going to be a star here one day.”
Saturday wasn’t it, but clearly was a step in the right direction.
The first Swedish player in ISU history, the 6-foot-4 Clarance played hard, was smart with the ball and showed poise and confidence.
None of that is easy after you’ve sat on your backside for a game and a half.
“Elijah had a couple of really good practices,” Muller said. “While I wasn’t planning on playing him, I wasn’t afraid to play him if I needed to. He went in and played like he practiced.
“To stay locked in and stay ready to go, it speaks to the character. I thought he was really good at both ends. He just kind of gave us a spark.”
It was that kind of day for the Redbirds. They needed a flicker here, a flash there.
With Evans (15.6 points per game) getting hurt and Milik Yarbrough (16.6) and Phil Fayne (16.0) slowed by first-half foul trouble, ISU’s “big three” would need help to get a third straight win.
The sophomore Hein scored a career-high 13 points. Isaac Gassman had a second-half steal and layup. William Tinsley had five points and five rebounds in 11 first-half minutes. Freshman Taylor Bruninga sank two second-half 3-pointers.
And there was Clarance, who helped keep things afloat with the game on the line, the crowd roaring and Evansville’s uncanny Ryan Taylor hitting everything in sight (32 points, 8 of 12 on 3s).
“I was able to make some plays and got the flow going a little bit,” Clarance said. “I’ve been through a lot of obstacles and adversity this year. I just have to think about the next play … stay positive, be a good teammate and work hard.
“That’s all I have to do. Everything will take care of itself.”
It is too early to know how long Evans will be out. If it is for an extended period, a number of players will have to pick up slack. Clarance showed Saturday he can be one of them.