DES MOINES, Iowa — Drake kept hanging close to Illinois State and trailed by just two midway through the second half Tuesday night at Knapp Center. The Bulldogs were sensing their second straight upset victory.
The Redbirds were having none of that.
“We know what it is. It starts on the defensive end,” said ISU sophomore Tony Wills. “We want to get stops and transition points.”
Wills keyed a 7-0 surge with plays at both ends of the court. Daishon Knight scored 20 points as ISU pulled away for a 64-56 victory over Drake in a Missouri Valley Conference basketball game before a crowd of 2,886.
“It was a little sloppy at times, but multiple guys stepped up and made plays,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “Any road win in conference is a great one.”
ISU (12-7, 4-3), which never trailed in the second half after taking a 29-27 lead at the break, also received 13 points, nine rebounds and three blocks from Reggie Lynch. The sophomore center had fouled out of five of his last seven games, but played 23 minutes with four fouls.
Twice early in the second half, the Redbirds went up by seven — and twice Drake (4-15, 1-6) battled back within two.
But Wills, who contributed eight points, four steals, three rebounds and three assists, played a leading role in helping ISU pull away after Drake got within 48-46.
Wills made a perfect pass to Knight for an open 3-pointer. Wills then scored on a 10-foot baseline jumper with the shot clock winding down before getting a steal at the other end, which eventually led to MiKyle McIntosh’s dunk off a lob pass from Bobby Hunter for a 55-46 lead with 6:15 left.
Drake never got within seven again.
“Tony’s defense and energy was great,” said Muller.
Knight, who is the nation’s third-leading scorer in road games , has scored 20 or more points in three straight games. Knight started at point guard in place of Paris Lee, who sat out with a sprained knee. Lee had started 51 straight games.
“At first it was (different),” said Knight. “Paris talked to me during a timeout and said, “You’re thinking way too much. You’re not the point guard. You’re just playing the point guard. Just play your game how you always play.’
“That kind of clicked with me, and I came out and hit some mid-range shots.”
ISU shot 50 percent from the field (22 of 44). The Redbirds made 16 of 25 free throws and took a 36-30 rebounding advantage.
Drake, which made 12 of 17 from 3-point range in upsetting Indiana State on Saturday, was 6 of 15 outside the arc. The Bulldogs shot 38.2 percent from the field (21 of 55).
Gary Ricks, Jr., who was named Valley Player of the Week after scoring 47 points in two games last week, was held to 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting. Freshman guard C.J. Rivers also added 10 points for the Bulldogs.
“One of our goals was to lock him (Ricks) down,” said Wills, who guarded Ricks the majority of the second half. “We know he’s a very good player. Coach was on me in practice and told me to fight through screens because it’s going to be a tough game. Drake has gotten better.”
Muller knew it wouldn’t be as easy against Drake as it was on Jan. 7 in Normal when the Redbirds cruised to a 81-45 victory.
“We weren’t great, but without your starting point guard who plays 30 minutes a game and is one of your best perimeter defenders and best assist guy we did a lot of good things,” said Muller, who is optimistic Lee will be able to play in Sunday’s 3 p.m. game against No. 20-ranked Northern Iowa at Redbird Arena.
Drake coach Ray Giacoletti credited ISU’s defensive pressure in the second half with allowing the Redbirds to seize control.
“They played zone in some possessions with short clocks and we didn’t do a good job handling that,” said Giacoletti. “They’re as athletic a team as is in the league. They’re long and athletic. Dan has done a great job getting them to buy in defensively.”