Billboards in the Twin Cities proclaim Illinois State to be "My Hometown Team!" When Bradley surged to a 15-3 lead Saturday at Redbird Arena, 10 days after outscoring ISU 43-14 in the second half at Peoria, a thought occurred: "Maybe it's time to find a new hometown."
A season-best crowd of 8,388 sat in silence, except for about 200 Bradley fans at the south end of the upper bowl. The game was spiraling out of control, and likely to take what's left of the season with it.
Forget about avoiding defeat. The Redbirds would do well to avert disaster.
What followed was a mixed bag of excitement, hope and harsh reality. Unlikely heroes Levi Dyer and Roberto Fortes sparked the Redbirds to a 36-33 halftime lead, sending the decibel level to forgotten heights.
ISU's season-long shooting problems resurfaced in the second half, helping Bradley to a 71-59 win. And while ISU and the Braves are in the same conference, the Redbirds are not in Bradley's league athletically. That reality remained.
Yet, there was the sense this day could have been far worse, that a program struggling to win games and win back fans at least showed heart, fight and potential, fleeting as it was.
What might have been an embarrassing flogging at the hands of an archrival turned into a spirited and entertaining contest. That may not take the sting out of a five-game losing streak and 8-15 record, but when you've been left for dead, any sign of a pulse is welcome.
It came largely from Dyer, a 6-foot-11 sophomore making only his third start, and Fortes, a 6-4 junior college transfer. Dyer came to the Arena averaging 9.5 minutes, 3.0 points and shooting 30.5 percent from the field. Fortes had played 7.3 minutes in 17 games, averaging 1.7 points and shooting 25.6 percent.
Neither had given us reason to expect Dyer to make a J.J. Redick-like 4 of 6 from 3-point range in the first half on his way to a career-high 16 points, or Fortes to play 24 minutes and score a career-best 11 points.
If nothing else, their success could pump life into an offense producing 55.7 points per game, worst in the Missouri Valley Conference.
"My first shot I knocked it down and I felt pretty good," said Dyer, who had made 12 of 37 from 3-point range this year (32.4 percent). "Then the second one went in and my confidence just kept building and building.
"This is a confidence booster. Even though we still had to deal with a loss, it's big just getting my confidence going."
Dyer finished 5 of 9 from the field while easily surpassing his previous high of nine points. Fortes made 4 of 9 overall and 2 of 5 from beyond the arc, eclipsing his high of seven points set four days earlier at Drake.
"The difference is just playing time," Fortes said. "Any player who gets in the flow and rhythm of things, and hits one or two shots like Levi did, it will get them going.
"Everybody is a player in this league. Once somebody gets going, it goes on from there."
ISU coach Porter Moser said both "gave us a boost," adding that Dyer "stretches the defense out" and Fortes has "stepped out of his shell" in the past two weeks.
On the down side, the Redbirds reverted to 32 percent shooting in the second half after making 46 percent - and 7 of 11 from 3-point range - in the first half. They also were outrebounded 44-26 and outscored from the free-throw line, 24-8.
Recovering from the dreadful start was a positive. Failing to take advantage of it was all too familiar.
"We need to learn how to finish off games and how to win games," Fortes said. "With three minutes to go we were down seven, and we had a couple of segments where we couldn't put the ball in the basket and had unforced turnovers. That's something we have to get better at."
True. But while ISU has fallen into a Thursday game of the Missouri Valley Tournament, the Redbirds may have done enough Saturday to encourage recruit Osiris Eldridge of Chicago Phillips.
The 6-3 guard was in attendance, and after the first five minutes, may have been ready to rip up his signed letter of intent. Instead, he remains bound for the Twin Cities, where the billboards live for another day.
Randy Kindred is a Pantagraph columnist. To leave him a voice mail, call 820-3402, By e-mail: email@example.com .