Dan Muller said he wasn’t sure what to expect with the return of DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Reggie Lynch to Illinois State’s basketball team on Sunday.
What the ISU coach got was a glimpse of what he thought this team might look like when he went out – on what some thought was a huge limb – and voted the Redbirds No. 1 in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll.
Maybe the scariest thing is that Akoon-Purcell figures to get a whole lot better, too, in the coming weeks.
ISU rolled to a 49-27 halftime lead against Missouri State at JQH Arena in Springfield, Mo. Even with the Redbirds’ offense not quite as sharp in the second half, the Bears were done. ISU cruised to a 69-55 victory to even its Valley record at 2-2 and improve to 10-6 overall.
Akoon-Purcell, the talented 6-5 wing, was ISU’s leading scorer when he suffered a broken bone in his right (shooting) hand on Dec. 14 at DePaul that required surgery. Muller said at the time it was a 4-6 week injury, and Akoon-Purcell made it back in exactly four weeks.
While Akoon-Purcell made just 2 of 10 shots, he was in attack mode from the time he entered with 15 minutes left in the first half. He got to the foul line and sank 7 of 8 attempts. He finished with 12 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes.
“DeVaughn had only two practices back. He’s going to be a better shooter than that, but he gives us a different dimension on the offensive end,” said Muller.
Akoon-Purcell made his first basket a 3-pointer with 57 seconds left in the first half to put ISU ahead by 19. He admitted that was a relief.
“I taped it (the surgically repaired finger) up to protect it, but it didn’t affect my shooting or finishes at the rim,” he said. “I just couldn’t get stuff to go in like I normally do.”
Sitting on the sidelines watching the Redbirds go 4-3 without him was difficult, Akoon-Purcell conceded.
“I’m not going to say that’s why we were losing games, but I can contribute in some type of way if I was out there,” he said.
Lynch’s back problems also began in that DePaul game. The 6-10 sophomore center was later held out of two games, including Wednesday against Drake, and his effectiveness has been limited.
But it was apparent in pregame warmups Sunday that Lynch had more spring in his step and didn’t appear as stiff. He showed that in the game, contributing nine points, a team-high seven boards and four blocks (he got jibbed out of a couple more) in 24 minutes.
“Reggie has looked better in practice. He had four full days off, and I think it helped him,” said Muller. “He looked quicker and bouncier. He’s missed practices so he’s rusty. He’s probably missed seven practices since Christmas.”
It was evident from the start of the second half that ISU didn’t have the same intensity on the offensive end. The Redbirds committed a turnover on their first possession and jacked up a quick 3-pointer on the next possession.
While ISU shot only 28.6 percent in the second half, it didn’t matter. The man-to-man defense was still shutting down Marcus Marshall and Austin Ruder, holding the Bears’ best scorers to two combined points in the second half on a Ruder layup. ISU only went to its 2-3 zone with nine minutes left.
“It’s human nature to relax when you’re up. We’ve got to learn you can’t always relax,” said Bobby Hunter, who paced ISU with 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting and 3-of-4 outside the arc. “We were fortunate we were up 22… if it is was 14-point game and we did that, it’s a four- or six-point game. We have to stay focused and locked in after halftime and not come out and be sluggish like we have been.”
Actually, ISU wasn’t sluggish in the second half against Drake or Wichita State last Sunday. That they found something to find fault with Sunday is good. No team ever wants to be satisfied.
That might even give the Redbirds the extra edge they need for Wednesday. But they probably don’t need anything more for motivation. ISU travels to face Indiana State at 6 p.m. at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute.
The Sycamores handed ISU a 63-61 defeat in the Valley opener on Dec. 31. Muller decided to make practices tougher after that and it has paid off.
The Redbirds have a different edge to them the last three games. While they might not get Deontae Hawkins back for a while because of his injured foot, this is a different-looking team that definitely will have revenge on its mind against the surprising Sycamores, who share the Valley lead with Wichita State at 4-0.
“We’re excited,” said Hunter with a big smile on his face.