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Illinois State surprises Wichita State, on cusp of something special in MVC

March 8, 2015 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (March 7) – One of the beauties of college sports is watching seniors stepping up their game in their final seasons. The motivation to keep one’s career going can frequently spur players to new heights, taking their teams on a ride with them.

Illinois State coach Dan Muller said it was going to take a player having a special day to defeat top seed and No. 8-ranked nationally Wichita State in his team’s semifinal Saturday at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. It was senior guard Daishon Knight who delivered, scoring 25 points in a masterful performance as the Redbirds shocked the Shockers 65-62.

Knight was marvelous against WSU, hitting 10 of 15 shots from the field, including 3 of 4 from three-point range, and scoring 16 points to lead an Illinois State rally in the second half. As a result, fourth seed ISU spoiled a possible rubber match between WSU and Northern Iowa, two teams ranked in the top 11 nationally, in what would’ve been a monster final on CBS in the 25th edition of Arch Madness.

“Inside our team…we had talks among each other,” said Knight. “We always just talk about how it’s our last chance playing with this group of people. We kind of take that personal amongst ourselves. We kind of go out there and fight for each other.”

The terrific MVC television analyst Mark Adams earlier this year dubbed Knight a “shut-up” player: someone who quiets the crowd or can stop momentum from a big run by an opponent. Knight provided the ultimate “shut-up” play on Saturday, hitting a three-pointer with 2:21 left that gave ISU the lead for good at 59-58.

For the second day in a row at Arch Madness, Illinois State rallied from a halftime deficit and was the tougher team down the stretch. The Redbirds trailed 30-22 at halftime but went on a 14-0 run early in the second half to take the lead, and ISU held off the team that had lost four games over the last two seasons.

Illinois State frustrated Wichita State by playing almost extensively zone after the opening minutes, when the Shockers raced out to a 20-12 lead just 7:17 into the contest. WSU shot 45.0% for the game, in part due to 16 second-chance points off 15 offensive rebounds, but the Shockers were just 4 of 18 from three-point range and often were stagnant and struggling to get good shots from outside in the second half.

Another factor in the win that cannot be underestimated: free throws. Foul shots matter especially in March, and Illinois State is good from there, shooting nearly 74% in Valley play. The Redbirds got to the line far more and made them, going 17-for-20 from the line (85%), including 10 of 10 in the final 4:02. Wichita State was just 4 of 8 from the stripe, and senior forward Darius Carter missed two crucial ones with 1:19 left and the Shockers trailing by three.

“Couldn’t be prouder of our guys,” said Muller, the former Illinois State player in his third year as coach. “The second half especially, the way we fought…a lot of guys made big plays, but it kind of came down to just going out there and leaving it all on the court, and we did that.”

It’s happened away from the national radar, but the Redbirds have been knocking on the door of some big things all season. ISU did something LSU and VCU were unable to-beat Old Dominion, and thoroughly (a 64-45 win). It lost to Seton Hall by just four in the Paradise Jam in November, when the Pirates were playing like a Top 25 team well before imploding. There also were narrow losses to VCU and red-hot Murray State, and wins at UAB and DePaul.

In the Valley, Illinois State was the third-best team over the course of the entire regular season (Indiana State tied the Redbirds in the standings but struggled out of conference), but still a distant third in the standings at 11-7, five games behind Northern Iowa and six behind Wichita State. In four matchups with the top two teams, the Redbirds were close in three of them: losses by eight at WSU and six to the Shockers at home, and a golden opportunity missed in a 54-53 loss at home to UNI in which the Panthers’ Nate Buss hit the winning three-pointer in the final seconds.

In all, nine of ISU’s 11 losses were by eight points or less, including eight by six or less. An injury to MVC Newcomer of the Year DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (10 points, five rebounds on Saturday) hurt the team at the start of Valley play, and while the wins were mostly decisive, the close losses kept piling up.

It seemed a corner may have been turned, though, when the Redbirds defeated Evansville 69-67 in overtime in their regular season finale. Illinois State duplicated the feat on Friday, edging the Purple Aces 71-67 in the semifinals to get a third shot at Wichita State.

“I think that was critical,” said Muller on Saturday. “Those were our two closest wins (in the MVC)-we had a great win at DePaul that was very close. We had a great win at UAB that was close. In the conference, we hadn’t won a close game like we did the last two games. To go back-to-back against a good Evansville team gave us confidence.”

Illinois State has been through a wild last few years. Look around college basketball, and transfers are already prevalent, but ones from ISU are seemingly everywhere. SMU’s best player is Nic Moore. Indiana has Nick Zeisloft as a heavy contributor. Cleveland State’s Kaza Keane is an important cog on one of the Horizon League’s best teams. Johnny Hill is the second-leading scorer at Texas-Arlington. Talent has rarely been a problem going back to even before Muller’s arrival after Tim Jankovich left to be Larry Brown’s top assistant at SMU, but finding the right blend has been.

Muller was nearly starting over last year, when the Redbirds began the year as one of the youngest teams in the country. ISU was a surprising 18-16 in 2013-14, but was still a young team coming into this year, one that appeared to be several notches below Wichita State and anyone else that wanted to mount a serious challenge to the Shockers.

Its ascension to contender status in the Valley comes as no surprise to at least one person, though. Back in October, Muller made the type of prediction that can define a career. In the MVC’s preseason poll of league coaches, media and sports information directors, 45 of 46 first-place votes went to Wichita State. The other went to Illinois State. The vote was Muller’s.

“I thought we’d have a chance, if we stayed away from injury, to be one of the best teams in the league. Northern Iowa and Wichita State, to be honest, are better than I thought they might be, and I thought they’d be really good, so I might have underestimated them a bit,” he said with a chuckle on Saturday.

“But as you can see, we’ve got some talent. We’ve had some injuries we had to deal with and some learning experiences, and we had to grow up. But we have talent, and that’s what I saw.”

Illinois State will face Northern Iowa in Saturday’s championship game after the 11th-ranked Panthers methodically took care of Loyola (Ill.) 63-49. The Redbirds have faced a lot and have grown a lot this year. Already a team with a bright future, the future may be now.

“We’ve been in close games,” said Muller. “We’ve seen presses. We’ve seen zones. We’ve played against this team two times. I think this group truly isn’t satisfied-I think. I’m pretty sure. We’ll find out tomorrow, again. But I think we truly came down here to win three.”

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