NORMAL — Well, this looked familiar to those watching — and even playing — at Redbird Arena on Saturday.
Illinois State seized an 18-point lead over Division III Augustana in an exhibition game with 17:40 left. But, similar to some games last season, the outcome was far from decided.
Guards Nolan Ebel and Chrishawn Orange kept firing away and had the Vikings thinking upset. ISU's lead was chopped to four with 28 seconds left before the Redbirds made free throws at the end to finally seal an 82-74 victory before a crowd of 4,218.
“We know from experiences last year, the things we did to let teams get on runs and we not scoring for four minutes, we know we can't let up,” said ISU senior Milik Yarbrough. “We have to keep pushing. Our defense starts our runs. Just keep the foot on the pedal.”
Phil Fayne paced the Redbirds with 23 points, while Zach Copeland scored 17 and Yarbrough 16. William Tinsley produced a double-double with 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. ISU shot 59.6 percent from the field, but that was negated by 19 turnovers and 14-of-24 free throw shooting.
With only three days left until Tuesday's 6 p.m. regular-season opener against Florida Gulf Coast at Redbird Arena, ISU has plenty of areas to work on.
“We're doing some things different in practice that I was optimistic it would help our turnover problems we had last year. But that was ridiculous,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “That's two games we shot 50 percent (against Lewis) and 60 percent. When we turn that ball over, it's very costly.”
Yarbrough and Keyshawn Evans didn't play during Tuesday's 80-56 victory over Division II Lewis. Yarbrough also dished out five assists, but had six turnovers. Evans, who missed two weeks with a sore foot, had six points and three turnovers in 20 minutes.
“I wanted to play Milik a lot. I left him in when he was tired a couple times,” said Muller. “He played really well until we got that lead, then I thought he really checked out. Keyshawn played like I expected. He took two weeks off and was very rusty. His shot was not even close, but he played hard. Keyshawn will be fine.”
Yarbrough said he wasn't feeling comfortable at the start as ISU trailed 22-16 midway through the first half. That changed in the last 10 minutes when the Redbirds switched out of a zone and into man-to-man defense that sparked a 25-6 run for a 41-28 lead at the break.
“I started feeling myself and scoring the ball, then I got overexcited and started doing stuff I did last year,” said Yarbrough. “I'll go back, watch film and see the little things I did wrong and try to clean it up.”
Ebel finished with a game-high 25 points while Orange scored all of his 19 points in the second half. They combined to go 9 of 18 outside the arc as the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin favorite Vikings sank 12 of 28 3-point attempts.
“This was a big deal for us to play a Missouri Valley team, especially one as good as this one,” said Augustana coach Grey Giovanine. “They could play anybody and gave us this opportunity. I think their staff did so because they thought we could be competitive and give them something worthwhile.
“I was really proud of our kids. I thought they competed extremely well. Other than a couple two-minute lapses, I thought we had a terrific effort. These two guards (Ebel and Orange) are as good a backcourt as there is.”
Copeland played his first game in about 20 months Tuesday. He had an uneven performance against Lewis and didn't get anything going in the first half Saturday, prompting Muller to sit him to start the second half.
The 6-4 junior guard flashed the explosiveness he showed at the City College of San Francisco in a nine-minute burst during the second half. Copeland scored 12 straight points for the Redbirds, including two 3-pointers.
“I've just got to settle down. I'm too antsy and excited at times,” said Copeland. “I'm taking myself out of the game instead of just playing basketball and calming myself out there a little bit.”
Muller still wants to see Copeland, along with others on the team, begin to dig in defensively and shut down the opponents' top threats. One of ISU's better perimeter defenders, junior guard Matt Hein, sat out with a sprained ankle.
“The most disappointing thing is they had two guys we couldn't guard,” said Muller. “We talked about guys stepping up and taking the challenge defensively really all year. You're not a good defensive team unless a handful of guys take the challenge against the best players.”
Still, Muller called Saturday's performance “a great experience for our guys.”
“Would it have been better if we won by 25? I don't know. I'll let you know in a month,” he said. “We definitely relaxed, and you can't do that.”