EVANSVILLE, Ind. - After sitting out two consecutive games because of poor play, Khalif Ford may have worked his way back into the starting lineup for Illinois State's basketball team.
Ford, who started the first eight games of the season at point guard, logged 26 minutes in ISU's last game and scored 10 first-half points after being sent to the bench the previous two contests.
"Sometimes the bench can be a great motivator," said ISU coach Porter Moser, whose team tries to shake a season-long losing streak on the road tonight with a 7:05 Missouri Valley Conference game against Evansville at Roberts Stadium.
"I think the bench served as a great motivation for Khalif," added Moser. "He's really practiced totally different the last couple of days. He didn't like sitting on the bench and came out and had a great first half (at Bradley).
"His practice habits have changed. He is listening more. He certainly came out really focused and poised in the first half at Bradley. He showed a little more fire than he has. He had a little more bounce in his step and that's good to see."
Ford, a 6-foot-1 sophomore who may get the starting nod tonight, admitted sitting on the bench was a little bit of a confidence-drainer, especially with the team not winning on a regular basis.
"But I'm a pretty confident individual," he said. "I didn't look at it as a knock on me, but what was best for the team. I just kept pushing myself to get through it and tried to work harder. I just try to bring whatever I can to the team."
The Redbirds will need to bring plenty of drive and determination with them against Evansville if they are going to snap an eight-game losing streak on the road this year and against Valley teams dating back to last season.
ISU, which has lost eight of its last 10 games for an 8-12 record, has dropped 10 straight games on opponent's courts since last season. The Redbirds, who are 3-9 in the conference, had their last road win Feb. 19 at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Evansville, one of the two teams ISU has defeated in its last 10 games, hasn't fared much better. The Purple Aces have dropped eight straight and 12 of their last 13 games for a 5-15 overall record and 1-11 Valley ledger.
"No question we are playing better the last few weeks, but it's frustrating because we have not experienced success in terms of winning," said Evansville coach Steve Merfeld. "We're not really doing anything differently.
"Our defense has been pretty solid all year, but it has to be when you struggle like we have offensively. I see a lot of similarities between us and Illinois State. We both play pretty good defense, but have trouble scoring at times."
The Aces are led by junior forward Matt Webster, who ranks second in the conference in scoring and eighth in rebounding, and freshman point guard Jason Holsinger. He scored a career-high 28 points in a loss at Wichita State on Wednesday.
"They will be a different team than we saw the first time," said Moser, alluding to the fact Webster did not play in a 65-57 ISU victory three weeks ago at Redbird Arena because of a sprained ankle.
"He is one of the best physical presences in the league," Moser continued. "He's very physical, likes to bang down low and draw fouls. We can't let them get to the line a lot."
In the first matchup, ISU managed a season-high 44 rebounds and had a 19-point lead in the second half. The Redbirds then started missing free throws and Evansville clawed back within three before ISU prevailed.
"They were able to distance themselves from us early in the second half," said Merfeld, whose team was hit by a stomach virus at Wichita State. Nine players were affected. "Then they missed some free throws that allowed us back in it."
Moser said the Redbirds must be leery of Holsinger, who had an uncharacteristically poor shooting night (3 for 15) at Redbird Arena. The 5-11 Holsinger is a strong candidate for Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year honors.
"We can't let him get in a groove where he gets 10 or 11 points in a matter of minutes," added Moser. "He's the type of scorer, who can really go off if you have a little lapse guarding him."
Moser was proud of how his team responded to a poor start against Bradley to forge a halftime tie. But he obviously wasn't pleased with the 29-point loss.
"The second half has hurt us in a number of games this year, especially on the road" said the ISU coach. "Other teams go on a little run and we seem to panic for some reason. We try to get it all back at once. We can't do that.
"We have more success in the first half because we seem to be patient enough to grind things out. We have to understand that we have to continue to grind things out and get it back a little at a time.
"The guys are trying hard, but they have to understand they have to be patient. Last year we were able to come back from big deficits in a number of games because the guys understood that."
"We always seem to stay with teams in the first half, but the second half we get a little out of sync and teams seem to bite us in the butt," said Ford. "We just have to learn how to fight through it and win."
Moser acknowledged that Evansville is playing well right now.
"They've been in a lot of close games and haven't been fortunate enough to win," he said. "They have been on the verge, though."
On the tube
The Redbirds' final regular-season game at Wichita State on Feb. 25 will be televised live on Fox Sports Midwest and Comcast. The game starts at 5 p.m.