NORMAL — Building a 22-point halftime lead was nice.
Watching it expand in the second half Wednesday night was just as gratifying for Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller.
The Redbirds have struggled on their home court this season playing a complete game. They accomplished that feat in routing Drake, 81-45, for their first Missouri Valley Conference victory before a hearty crowd of 3,809 that braved the frigid temperature outside.
“We’ve gotten tougher over the last week with tougher practices,” said Muller. “It was my fault for letting us get to the point where we were for the Indiana State game (a week ago in a 63-61 loss). I think we’re getting to where we need to be.”
Daishon Knight paced ISU (9-6, 1-2) with 15 points. Paris Lee added 12 points, while Tony Wills contributed 10 points and a career-high six assists and MiKyle McIntosh had 10 points and nine rebounds. All nine Redbird scholarship players who dressed scored at least six points.
The Redbirds were without three injured starters in center Reggie Lynch (back), forward Deontae Hawkins (foot) and guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (broken hand). Hawkins was not on the bench during the game.
“Nothing big,” said Muller. “He just missed a meeting so I told him not to come tonight.”
Lee, who scored 10 points in the first half as ISU surged to a 45-23 lead, said longer and tougher practices in the last week have made a difference. The Redbirds played No. 16 Wichita State tough on the road Sunday before losing, 70-62.
“We had a lot of players, myself especially, who complained about being tired,” said the sophomore guard. “As tough as our coach is, you really don’t want to hear that anyone is tired.”
ISU held a halftime lead in all three home games it lost earlier this season.
Wills wasn’t surprised the Redbirds played with just as much energy after halftime as before. It was ISU’s largest margin of victory against a Valley team since also beating Missouri State by 36 on Feb. 27, 2013.
“Guys were more locked in and we played more of a 40-minute game today and hopefully we continue to do that throughout the conference season going into Arch Madness,” said Wills.
The Redbirds shot 61.5 percent from the field in the first half. ISU’s man-to-man defense was stellar, holding Drake (3-12, 0-3) without a basket for 6:40 in a 13-0 run that built the lead to 36-16 with 4:47 left.
Wills was the most effective player at both ends in the first half with eight points, five assists, two rebounds and a block. Lee hit four-of-five shots, including two of three outside the arc, and scored 10 points.
ISU showed right away after the intermission there would be no drop off on this night.
The Redbirds outscored Drake, 17-6, in the first eight minutes to expand their advantage to 62-29. They kept pushing and lead by as much as 75-31 with 7:06 left.
ISU shot 56.6 percent from the field (30 of 53), including 9 of 21 outside the arc, and grabbed a 38-21 rebounding advantage.
“It was a pretty complete game for our team,” said Muller. “When you make shots you look better offensively. Our bench was even shorter than normal, but it was still great for us. Everyone who went in really tried to execute our game plan.”
The Redbirds didn't go to a zone defense until there were seven minutes left.
“We’ve been doing a lot of man practice defensive work,” said Wills. “We’re getting a lot better than we were before and we’re looking forward to playing man even more.”
Senior forward Chris Caird paced Drake with 15 points. Seven-foot sophomore center Jacob Enevold Jensen, who scored in double figures for five straight games, was held to two points and one rebound. The Bulldogs shot 31.8 percent from the field (14 of 44).
“Dan’s team played with great energy. They’re missing three really good players, but I think they’re more talented than Wichita State at each position 1 through 12,” said Drake coach Ray Giacoletti.
“We are who we are. We have four freshmen running around and a sophomore. It’s going to take a couple years to put together a team that can be competitive.”
ISU travels to face Missouri State at 2 p.m. Sunday.