SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The exodus from JQH Arena started with 11:27 left Tuesday night. Missouri State fans had seen enough.
Illinois State opened up a 25-point lead midway through the second half of a Missouri Valley Conference basketball game over the preseason league favorites. Milik Yarbrough and Keyshawn Evans led five Redbirds in double figures with 15 points each as ISU routed Missouri State, 76-60, before a crowd of 4,545.
“We really focused on defense and taking care of the ball,” said Yarbrough, who added eight rebounds and six assists with only two turnovers. "We came out with a lot of focus. We know we have to finish strong heading to St. Louis for the (MVC) tournament.”
ISU broke a four-game road losing streak while improving to 12-11 overall and 6-5 in the league ahead of Saturday's 3 p.m. game against Evansville at Redbird Arena.
Missouri State (15-9, 5-6 MVC) dropped its fourth straight. The Bears shot 32.3 percent from the field, going 4 of 23 outside the arc. On Sunday, ISU held Valparaiso to 37.7 percent in an 11-point win.
“It was another really good defensive performance from our team, which is exciting to me,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “It's something we've been trying to get our team to understand for a long time.
"I feel really, really bad for Paul (Lusk, Missouri State) and his team for what they've dealt with. I can't imagine it. They are shorthanded. I thought we wore them down a little bit.”
The Bears were without their third-leading scorer, forward Reggie Scurry, and forward Abdul Fofano. They had an adverse reaction to a cryotherapy treatment last week and missed their third straight game.
Missouri State's Alize Johnson, the league Preseason Player of the Year, only took two shots after halftime. He finished with 12 points along with guards J.T. Miller and Mustafa Lawrence, who did all his scoring in the last eight minutes.
“We struggled offensively. I thought we got some shots,” said Lusk. “Our starting backcourt, those guys are trying, they were 1 for 18 and the first guy we bring off the bench is 1 of 5. It's hard, no doubt. We kept trying to fight, but if you can't score the ball ...”
Taylor Bruninga scored the ball for ISU. The freshman forward, who has started seven games, didn't play against Valparaiso as Muller shortened his rotation.
But Bruninga came off the bench in the first half when Yarbrough and Phil Fayne (11 points) each picked up two fouls. He scored 10 points, including a layup off an Evans feed with two seconds left, to give ISU a 30-21 halftime lead.
“You could argue Taylor won for us the game in the first half,” said Muller. “That (last) bucket gives you momentum going into halftime. I'm proud of Taylor. I talked to him before that (Valparaiso) game and told him you probably won't play, but you have to stay ready and you never know.”
Bruninga had made only 1 of 7 shots in his previous four games. He went 5 of 7 from the field Tuesday, including 3 of 5 outside the arc, and finished with 13 points.
“You have to put it behind you,” he said. “I knew what I had to do, just catch and shoot the ball. Coach says you have to be ready to shoot it.”
ISU shot 41.3 percent from the field and was 11 of 32 outside the arc. The Redbirds enjoyed a 45-39 rebounding advantage against one of the MVC's best rebounding teams. David Ndiaye led the Redbirds with 10 boards.
“I was not happy with our defensive rebounding, but incredibly happy with our offensive rebounding,” said Muller as the Redbirds grabbed 15 offensive boards. “The bottom line is if you force the team to shoot a lower percentage, you have a better chance to be a better rebounding team because they miss more shots.”
Madison Williams added 12 points for the Redbirds, who only committed 12 turnovers.
ISU expanded a nine-point halftime lead to 35-21 when Yarbrough connected on a 15-foot jumper and Evans buried a 3-pointer from the corner.
But Yarbough picked up his third foul with 18:32 left. The Redbirds went five straight possessions without scoring until Evans pulled up and hit another 3-pointer on the break for a 38-26 lead with 15:20 left.
When Bruninga and Williams followed with 3-pointers each, ISU's lead suddenly reached 18 at 44-26 as the building almost went silent.
Another Evans 3-pointer put ISU ahead, 59-34, with 9:10 left. However, the Redbirds began missing a bunch of shots at the rim and Missouri State used a 14-3 run to cut the deficit to 62-48 with 5:21 left.
Williams stopped any comeback hopes with the Redbirds' 10th 3-pointer and the Bears never got closer than 13 again.
Muller said Johnson “was a huge emphasis” for the Redbirds defensively.
“It was a team effort,” said the ISU coach. “I think our zone can limit him a little bit. Our zone really really is good guarding Alize.”
ISU never trailed as Williams opened the game not with a thundering dunk, a la Saturday against Valparaiso, but a 3-pointer from the wing.
The Redbirds opened a 23-13 lead after Yarbrough sank a 3-pointer with 5:19 left. However, Yarbrough joined Fayne on the bench with his second foul after a charge with 3:36 left and ISU ahead, 23-18.
Bruninga came to the rescue. He sank his second 3-pointer from the wing, then added a rebound basket and his final layup to give ISU a nine-point halftime lead.
ISU shot only 34.4 percent from the field in the first half, but held Missouri State to 28.1 percent overall and 1 of 12 outside the arc.