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The Redbird Arena crowd of 9,627, the biggest since 2010, was in a joyous mood Saturday. Victory over rival Bradley was secured. Time to go out and celebrate.

Then came a play in the final seconds that could very well define what the rest of the season looks like.

Paris Lee was trying to retrieve a loose ball in the corner when he appeared to twist his left knee with 9.3 seconds showing. Lee limped to the bench in pain as athletic trainer John Munn, who should be getting overtime pay these days, tended to him.

Lee made his way through the postgame handshake line after the 82-72 victory and even went into the student section to sign the school song. But he didn't come to the news conference as requested, obviously being looked at more closely in the training room.

ISU coach Dan Muller said he didn't know the extent of Lee's injury just minutes after the game. The Redbirds have been slammed the last month with forward Deontae Hawkins (stress reaction in foot), wing DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (broken hand) and center Reggie Lynch (lower back) all missing time.

Lynch appears fine now and Akoon-Purcell is playing after a seven-game absence with a splint on his hand, which obviously is affecting his shooting. Hawkins played four minutes on Dec. 31 before his foot began aching and is out indefinitely.

ISU's depth has helped overcome the injuries. But losing Lee for any length of time could be the toughest challenge of all.

Lee is the Redbirds' best ballhandler, his 1.7 turnover-to-assist ratio is third in the Missouri Valley Conference, and keys the defense out front. He ranks No. 12 nationally in steals with 2.5 per game. 

If Lee is out, ISU will have to move Bobby Hunter into the starting lineup at the point with Daishon Knight filling in as well.

Hunter can play the point full-time, but it will take him off the wing where he is more valuable (12 of 19 on 3-pointers in league play). The same with Knight. Neither is the defensive equivalent of Lee, who had three more steals Saturday.

"It would be a big blow, but Paris is a soldier," said Knight. "It will take a lot for him to get hurt. He would have to break a bone for him to say he was hurt. If it were to happen we would have someone step up and fill his shoes."

What ISU also needs if for Lynch to stay on the court. Lynch's foul troubles are starting to become a serious problem.

The sophomore center fouled out for the fifth time in the last seven games after playing 12 minutes. His last foul came four seconds after he checked back into the game.

That's right, four seconds. There was still 6:29 left and the game was not put away at that point.

Muller is starting to become irritated with the situation, and rightfully so. Lynch is too valuable to the team to be sitting on the bench. Muller said he is about to make him an assistant coach for all the time the sophomore spends next to the coaches.

Without Lynch, ISU loses one of the nation's best shot blockers and the best rim protector in the Valley.

"We need him in the game. A lot of his fouls are over the back, just silly fouls, trying to be too aggressive," said Hunter. "If we can eliminate those we can keep him in the game more than 12 minutes."

The Redbirds started a stretch of six games Saturday where they could build some significant momentum and perhaps jump back into the Valley race.

They need Lee and Lynch playing significant minutes for that to happen.

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