CHICAGO — This defeat might not have stung as much as Illinois State's first road loss in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Yet missing a chance to beat the defending league champions on their homecourt Saturday felt like another missed opportunity.
ISU rallied from a 12-point deficit with 15 minutes left to tie Loyola with 3:41 left. However, the Redbirds couldn't convert on several chances to take the lead as the Ramblers held on for a 67-64 victory before a Gentile Arena crowd of 4,513.
“I feel like we made a few mental mistakes to give them easy buckets,” said Milik Yarbrough, who paced ISU with 19 points and 10 rebounds. “Overall we learned a lot. We felt we should've won, but things happened … I think we can build from this. I think we'll be ready when they come to our place (Feb. 2).”
Keyshawn Evans, who has struggled offensively all season, scored a season-high 16 points for the Redbirds. ISU fell to 9-8 overall and 2-2 in the MVC ahead of Tuesday's 6 p.m. game against Southern Illinois at Redbird Arena.
“Our two road losses have been pretty tough on us,” said ISU coach Dan Muller, remembering Valparaiso's halfcourt shot to stun the Redbirds on Jan. 2. “You can feel like it's so terrible, but it's one of 18 games. I'm not sure how many teams are going to come here and win. We can't control that. I think we have enough guys who know it's about the next game.”
Senior guard Marques Townes' 21 points paced Loyola (10-7, 3-1), which shot 59.3 percent from the field in the first half while establishing a 40-34 lead. Sophomore center Cameron Krutwig and senior guard Clayton Custer added 13 points each.
The Ramblers used a 9-2 run early in the second half, capped by Townes' three-point play, to take a 50-38 lead.
But ISU switched to a zone with full-court pressure. Although the Redbirds didn't force any turnovers in the backcourt, that appeared to slow down Loyola and helped change the momentum.
Phil Fayne's three-point play brought ISU within 50-47. Loyola built the lead back to 57-49 before the Redbirds made another surge.
Matt Chastain's highlight-film slam dunk off a rebound capped a 9-2 run and helped ISU gain a 61-all tie with 3:41 left. Chastain left Loyola after his freshman season and transferred to ISU.
“We all knew Chastain could get up. He's a really athletic person,” said Townes. “We knew that when he was here that he could jump off the building. I even told him, 'Dang, you got me on that one.'”
From that point, the Redbirds had four chances to tie or take the lead with a basket or 3-pointer. However, they missed two shots and Yarbrough committed two turnovers on errant passes while driving to the basket.
Custer sank two free throws and Lucas Williamson added a pair to put the Ramblers ahead, 65-61. Zach Copeland's long 3-pointer from the wing sliced the deficit to 65-64 with 15 seconds left.
ISU fouled Custer, the reigning MVC most valuable player, who made both free throws. The Redbirds had a chance to tie in the waning seconds, but a long Copeland 3-pointer near the sideline hit the rim and bounced away as the Ramblers celebrated.
“Loyola is such a solid team they don't make many mistakes,” said Evans, as the Ramblers committed all seven of their turnovers in the second half. “Even though we had a good offensive game, when we weren't as solid as we should been defensively you're not going to beat them.”
Yarbrough, who wasn't on the court on the last possession as Muller said he opted to put Josh Jefferson on the court for another 3-point shooter, lamented his two late turnovers. The second with 31 seconds left would have been an easy dunk for Fayne to tie the game.
“Anything that happens I feel is my fault. I blame every game on me when we lose,” said Yarbrough, who had five turnovers. “All those mistakes are mine. It's just something I have to work on, see film and what's going on, make a skip pass instead of throwing it to Phil.”
Muller credited Yarbrough with “not playing a good game, but a great game.” Instead, the ISU coach pointed to the Redbirds' defensive effort in the first half and the first five minutes of the second half as the main culprits.
Still, Muller knew ISU had its chance down the stretch.
“We've talked to our team a lot about when we go on a run we have to stay solid,” he said. “We have guys who deviate from our game plan and principles and it cost us buckets … we haven't handled the emotion great when the other team goes on run or we go on a run. It goes both ways.”
Loyola was coming off a 67-48 loss at Evansville on Tuesday. After losing three league games by a combined 11 points last season en route to a Final Four run, the Ramblers were determined to get back on the winning track right away.
“I didn't expect anything less that it was going to come down to the end with them. Both teams are trying and clawing and fighting for wins,” said Porter Moser, as the Ramblers have won four straight over the school he coached from 2003-07. “They came out and really played hard. Keyshawn has always played well against us.
“I'm proud of our guys on how they stayed with it. We missed two free throws (by Aher Uguak with 2:30 left) and came back and made four of four (actually six of six). That's what you have to do. Make free throws and get a stop.”