In white letters on the back of Illinois State’s black basketball warmup shirts are the words “ALL IN.” They are intended to convey the mentality of the guys in uniform.
Saturday night, for the first time this season and, perhaps, in a few seasons, there was a sense the mantra wasn’t limited to players and coaches.
Redbird Arena had a pulse. We took that for granted when Dan Muller was a Redbird player in the 1990s. It’s been largely absent in his five years as ISU’s head coach.
Saturday, in a battle for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference against the league’s established kingpin Wichita State, the season-best crowd of 9,078 provided energy in a game that required every ounce.
ISU’s 76-62 win was a physical and mental tug of war from the opening tip. It was intense, entertaining and an absolute reward for those who shelled out money for tickets.
That alone was victory.
It tickled the memory and brought a smile, if only on the inside. This was how it once was here, for years at Horton Field House and in the Kevin Stallings-era 1990s at Redbird Arena.
This used to be the norm in Normal. Maybe it can be again. It seemed possible again on this night, something not to be taken lightly.
When Deontae Hawkins nailed a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner midway through the second half, part of an 11-2 run for 54-44 ISU lead, the place exploded.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall called a timeout. The environment was hostile for the guys in black and gold.
The crowd dwarfed the previous season high of 6,056 against New Mexico on Dec. 3. It was more than double the season average of 4,410.
And yes, it mattered.
It helped ISU answer a second-half Shockers’ run with back-to-back 3-pointers by Paris Lee and Hawkins. A 56-53 lead was back up to 62-53.
When MiKyle McIntosh followed with a 3 moments later, it was bedlam again. And throughout an ensuing media timeout, most of the paying customers remained standing.
That wouldn’t catch your eye in a lot of places. It was quite a sight in this one.
With two minutes left, his team in front 67-55, Muller gestured to the crowd to stand again, get loud and crazy. They did. Wichita State turned the ball over.
“This is our house!” came the chant from the large and vocal student section.
It was what Muller envisioned when he came back here in May 2012. Maybe you did, too. Now, you have little excuse for not being part of it.
The final minute turned into a group hug, a victory lap with pedal to the metal.
The punctuation was an alley-oop from Lee to McIntosh with 18.6 seconds left. The teflon roof didn’t come off. But it shook a little.
“I want to thank the crowd for coming out and showing up like they did,” Lee said. “Wichita State is a good team, We just beat a real good team. That says a lot about us.
“I think our fans are aware that they really help us out a lot. It was just making the right plays. Coach always says our thing is chop wood and we just chopped wood every minute of the game. Even when they made a run we kept our composure. I think that shows a lot of maturity.”
Lee, a candidate for MVC Player of the Year, had a typically strong game with 10 points, six assists, three rebounds and two steals.
But this win was a group effort, as evidenced by DJ Clayton’s 11 points and 5 for 5 field goal shooting off the bench. Backup point guard Keyshawn Evans also contributed 10 points and two assists.
“We can get a lot of different guys going,” Lee said. “This group is special.”
Clayton’s effort came three days after he scored a season-high 13 points on 6 of 7 shooting at Southern Illinois. He is emerging as a key man, playing 28 minutes Saturday in a game he said “lets everyone know we’re number one in the league right now.”
Clayton was all smiles afterward. A 6-6 junior forward, he spent a year at Western Kentucky and another at Palm Beach State College before landing at Illinois State.
Was this why he came?
“It exactly was,” he said.
“It was very fun,” Clayton added. “The atmosphere was crazy. Thank you to those fans that came, especially to the students who came back early from winter break. To have all those people there, it really fueled us in a lot of points in the game.”
There you have it. The players, students, fans in general … they were in this together.
“ALL IN” if you will.