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NORMAL - Illinois State's basketball team cast aside a true and loyal friend Wednesday night at Redbirds Arena when they needed it most.

The Redbirds, who entered the game with the 13th best scoring defensive average in the nation at 58.6 points, couldn't get the stops they needed and dropped a 72-61 decision to Missouri State in Missouri Valley Conference action.

”We have tried to hang our hat on defense all year and we couldn't get the big stops down the stretch when we needed them," said ISU coach Porter Moser.

Missouri State took advantage of a scoreless seven-minute stretch by the Redbirds midway through the second half to improve its overall record to 19-7. The Bears moved into a tie for third place in the league standings with Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa at 11-6.

”We had been playing great defense it seems like all year long, but that was our downfall today," said ISU senior Neil Plank, who along with Dana Ford, Nedu Onyeuku and Travis Wallace were playing their final home game.

”The first half a lot of their points came in transition. We just didn't get to the shooters right away. Transition and rebounding hurt us in the first half."

ISU, which trailed 37-29 at intermission, started the second half by scoring nine unanswered points to draw within 37-35 at the 17:52 mark on consecutive baskets (one a 3-pointer) by Plank.

The Bears responded, though, as Drew Richards scored on a conventional three-point play and Tyler Chaney added a basket to start Missouri State on a 15-5 run that produced a 52-40 cushion with 12:08 remaining.

—We called the timeout (at the 17:42 mark leading by two) and switched defenses and (the lead) went from 2 to 7 just like that off two defensive stops," said Missouri State coach Barry Hinson. ”I thought that right there was the game."

But the Redbirds weren't done.

Roberto Fortes, who led the Redbirds in scoring for the third straight game with 14 points, sandwiched a pair of 3-point baskets around two Greg Dilligard free throws to pull ISU within 54-48 at the 10:21 mark.

Then the Redbirds went silent before 4,655 people, going seven minutes without scoring a point by missing four shots, all from 3-point range, and turning the ball over six times.

”We had three or four turnovers in that stretch that were bad," said Moser. ”It was just a bad seven-minute stretch."

The closest shot the Redbirds, who were in the bonus free-throw situation with 10:30 remaining, during the scoreless stretch was when Dilligard was guilty of a charging foul at the 4:09 mark. By that time, the Bears had a 61-48 lead.

”We were looking to get the ball inside as much as we could, but there were times we couldn't get it in," said Dilligard. ”We talked about it at halftime and during the whole game. It was one of the things we wanted to do. We just didn't do it as well as we needed to."

Concerning the dry spell, Dilligard remarked: ”It's happened to us in a lot of games. We can't have lulls like that. If we make a run we have to continue to keep going with it. We can't have a run and then stop and let the other team have their own run. We have to learn to keep battling."

Six straight points, four by Onyeuku, cut the ISU deficit to 63-54 with 1:56 to go, but the Bears made 7 of 9 free throws the rest of the way to seal the verdict. Missouri State finished 11 of 14 from the charity stripe, while ISU admitted to 11 of 18 accuracy.

"This was a game we had to win," said Hinson. ”We played under great pressure because we knew we had to win. This was a game we couldn't afford to lose with what we want to accomplish.

”ISU guards us as well as anybody in the league and we did a great job offensively. We shot the ball and we guarded. That combination on the road helps. The only thing that disappointed me was our rebounding, but when you hold them to that kind of shooting you may give up a few rebounds."

The Bears shot 50 percent from the field, including 58 percent from 3-point territory, and limited the Redbirds to 39 percent, including a 29.6 clip from beyond the arc. ISU did manage a 36-30 advantage on the boards.

Blake Ahearn paced four Bears in double figures with 18, including 11 in the first half. Nathan Bilyeu added 13, Dale Lamberth 12 and Kellen Easley 10.

”Ahearn played like the all-league player that he is," said Moser. ”He makes big shots and is totally efficient."

Missouri State shot 55 percent from the field in the first half, including 71 percent from 3-point land, while ISU admitted to 40.1 percent.

”Shooting on the outside always opens up your inside game," said Dilligard of the fact the Bears outscored ISU, 34-20, in the paint. ”If they have respectable shooters you have to pressure them more and it takes away from the defense on the inside."

Dilligard was the only other ISU player in double figures with 11 points. He also handled a game-high nine rebounds.

”Dilligard has been a thorn in our side every time," quipped Hinson. ”It was important for us to keep (the ball) out of the post area. When it went in, we tried to dig it out. We knew we were going to give up some 3-point shots."

The loss dropped ISU's record to 9-17 overall and 4-13 in Valley play. The Redbirds, who are tied with Indiana State and Evansville for the last three spots in the standings, close the regular season with a 5:05 p.m. league game at Wichita State.

”I have to give a lot of credit to Missouri State," concluded Moser. ”They are a very good team playing very well at the end of the year. They are a NCAA Tournament team without a doubt. They are a tremendous offensive team that is guarding real well right now."

breakout box IF NEEDED

Game leaders

Missouri State 72, ISU 61

Scoring: ISU - Roberto Fortes 14; MSU - Blake Ahearn 18

Rebounding: ISU (36) - Greg Dilligard 9; MSU (30) - Nathan Bilyeu and Dale Lamberth 5

FG percentage: ISU - 38.9; MSU - 50.0

3-pt. FG percentage: ISU - 29.6; MSU - 58.3

FT percentage: ISU - 61.1; MSU - 78.6


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