NORMAL — An 18-point lead that Illinois State’s basketball team built in the first half was gone.
So, too, was its usually mild-mannered coach, who was sitting in the locker room after getting ejected late in the first half.
“It was a taste of adversity that we’re going to see throughout the entire year,” said ISU junior Jackie Carmichael.
Well, maybe not quite this much adversity. Tim Jankovich plans to stick around for the end of every game the rest of the way. But the ISU coach enjoyed hearing how his team bonded together in his absence during Tuesday night’s wild game at Redbird Arena.
Tyler Brown scored 23 points as the Redbirds rallied to down Arkansas-Little Rock, 72-65. A festive and sometimes heated crowd of 3,193 got much more than it bargained for after hot-shooting ISU zoomed to an early 32-14 lead.
Freshman Nic Moore added 17 points as ISU headed home for the holidays after finishing the nonconference portion of the schedule with an 8-3 record. The Redbirds start Missouri Valley Conference action at home on Dec. 29 against Northern Iowa.
“I’m so proud of all our guys and our assistant coaches did a fantastic job,” said Jankovich. “That’s why you hire good basketball people. They’re more than qualified.”
Assistant coach Rob Judson took over when Jankovich was given two technicals and ejected by referee Gerry Pollard with 1:30 left in the first half. Jankovich vehemently protested a charging foul called on Jon Ekey that wiped out a basket with ISU ahead, 40-28.
D’Andre Williams made three of four free throw attempts following the technical as UALR (3-10) cut the gap to 42-33 at halftime.
Carmichael, who finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, scored on a rebound basket to start the second half. But the Redbirds proceeded to go eight minutes without scoring as UALR used a 13-0 run to take a 46-44 lead.
“It was a sense we have to win this game no matter what happens,” said Brown.
After Brown’s rebound basket tied the game, Judson gathered the Redbirds during a timeout with 11:20 left.
“They really tuned into what we were saying during huddles and timeouts,” said Judson, who served as Northern Illinois’ coach from 2001-07. “Sometimes you take over and it’s not the head coach and same voice they’ve heard. It’s like, ‘What is he saying?’ But they really tuned in and had a great response. It was a team effort up and down the line.”
The Redbirds used an 8-0 run to go ahead, 52-46, with 9:02 left. The Trojans, behind center Will Neighbour (19 points), kept it close and trailed 64-61 after Courtney Jackson’s three-point play with 2:54 left before the Redbirds sank eight of 10 free throws down the stretch to clinch the victory.
“Give Illinois State credit,” said UALR coach Steve Shields. “They had a couple tough offensive rebounds that put us in difficult situations. They made plays they had to make to win the ballgame.”
Jankovich talked to the team at halftime and told them to “just stay together,” said Moore.
“He said we don’t need him or the other coaches,” added Moore. “Just play together and be smart.”
The Redbirds made 13 of their first 17 shots in seizing a 32-14 lead with 8:43 left in the first half. Anthony Cousin’s 3-pointer gave ISU a 40-23 lead with 3:25 left, but things changed when ISU’s Trey Blue was called for a flagrant foul for a high elbow with 2:01 left.
Then came Jankovich’s ejection. It wasn’t the first time he had been ejected as a head coach. It also happened in December 1995 when Jankovich was at North Texas and his team played at Texas A&M.
After Jankovich was ejected, Moore and UALR’s Chuck Guy were each given a technical by Pollard with 23 seconds left.
“We had a great mindset to start the game, and then a couple obstacles came they’ve never see before,” said Judson.
As for staying in the locker room during the game, Jankovich said: “I don’t recommend that. I was listening for the crowd, and I didn’t hear the crowd for a long time.”
REDBIRD REPORT CARD
FRONTCOURT – B—: Will Neighbour was difficult for ISU to defend with his 3-point shooting ability. Jackie Carmichael almost had another double-double for Redbirds (10 points, 9 rebounds).
BACKCOURT – B+-: Tyler Brown made some clutch plays when UALR took the lead, while Nic Moore staked Redbirds to big early advantage with three 3-pointers.
BENCH – C: Jon Ekey came off bench for first time this season and hit two key 3-pointers in second-half run, while Jordan Threloff snagged eight boards.
OVERALL – B—: ISU fought through a lot of adversity, especially losing their coach. This would have been a tough defeat to swallow, but it became an even bigger victory to savor.