NORMAL — Five games back from a broken bone in his hand, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell was struggling to find his groove on the offensive end.
The struggle might have ended Wednesday night. Just in time for Illinois State, too.
The 6-foot-5 junior wing tied his season high with 20 points and grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds to spark Illinois State to a 67-57 victory over undermanned Missouri State in a Missouri Valley Conference basketball game Wednesday night before a Redbird Arena crowd of 4,177.
“I felt like in the past (games) I was doing a little too much thinking trying to come back from the injury and just trying to do too much,” said Akoon-Purcell. “I feel if I let the game come to me I can do a lot better. I’ve worked on it the past couple days, and it showed tonight on the court.”
ISU (13-8, 5-4 MVC) also received 14 points from Daishon Knight and 12 from Reggie Lynch. Deontae Hawkins also played for the first time since Dec. 31 because of a stress reaction in his left foot and contributed four points and four rebounds.
ISU committed 15 turnovers but used a 36-26 rebounding advantage and 26 points in the paint to finally get past the Bears. The Redbirds were coming off a tough 54-53 defeat to No. 18-ranked UNI three days earlier and improved to 7-1 after a loss.
“I thought we would play better than we did after yesterday’s practice,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “We didn’t play terrible, but we were sloppy. Some guys came out a little tentative the way we shot the ball. Missouri State is going to play hard. They’ve been right in games. It’s not like they’ve been blown out. It was a good win for us.”
Akoon-Purcell was 10 of 42 from the field since returning from a broken fifth metacarpal bone in his right shooting hand. He played for the second straight game with just two fingers taped instead of a wrap on the hand.
“I feel it gets better every single day. I just get more comfortable playing with it,” he said. “I try not to think about it and just play.”
Muller wasn’t surprised by Akoon-Purcell’s effort, which included going 6 of 13 from the field and 8 of 8 at the line in addition to seven offensive rebounds.
“The practice before the Northern Iowa game he was starting to look a little like his former self and even more like it after the game,” said Muller. “I knew it was only a matter of time. He was just quicker, bouncier and had more confidence.”
It was a gutty performance by Missouri State (8-13, 2-7), which dressed only eight players in losing its seventh straight game. Forward Camyn Boone paced the Bears with 13 points.
Sophomore center Tyler McCullough sprained an ankle in practice Monday and is out indefinitely. His replacement, Christian Kirk, had a sore throat and fever, but played and scored 10 points. Leading scorer Marcus Marshall left the team shortly after ISU beat the Bears, 69-55, in Springfield, Mo., on Jan. 11.
“Obviously we’re limited, but I thought we had the game in position (to win),” said Missouri State coach Paul Lusk. “I thought we did some pretty good things, but the turnovers (17) and rebounding cost us.”
Both teams committed 11 turnovers in the first half, which ended with ISU taking a 28-25 lead.
The Redbirds made their first four shots to start the second half, including two inside baskets by Lynch, to expand their lead to 39-28. However, the Bears didn’t fold. Missouri State was within 44-39 with 11:30 left.
The teams traded baskets until Paris Lee’s lob to a streaking Akoon-Purcell on the baseline for a dunk was followed by Akoon-Purcell exploding into the lane for a lay-in to put ISU ahead, 52-43.
The Bears still refused to let ISU pull away. Freshman Chris Kendrix’s 3-pointer with 2:21 left cut the deficit to 62-55. But that was as close as Missouri State could get.
“I never know if we really found a rhythm,” said Muller. “We got a couple stops and transition baskets and scored on a couple plays we called. We extended it, but we fouled a couple times and let them get back into it.”
ISU finished shooting 43.6 percent from the field (24 of 55), but was just 2 of 15 on 3-pointers. Missouri State hit 43.5 percent (20 of 46) and was 3 of 14 outside the arc.
Lynch scored in double figures for the third straight game, the first time this season the 6-foot-10 sophomore has done that.
"I've been working the past two weeks going harder to the rim," he said. "There were a couple buckets I could have made that I went up too soft (the past couple games). Today we had a lot better movement on offense and the guards gave me some good looks in the paint, so I was able to get some easier buckets."
The Redbirds travel to face Chicago to face Loyola at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gentile Arena.