Seventh-seeded Missouri State had No. 2 seed Evansville right where it wanted in the teams’ Missouri Valley Conference Tournament quarterfinal Thursday night-tie game, 15 minutes to play, pressure squarely on the higher seed.
Then, with quiet efficiency on its next three possessions against the Bears’ matchup zone defense, the Purple Aces scored six straight points-layup, layup, two free throws. Evansville would not trail again.
The aura of the game suggested all was still within the balance yet with less than eight minutes left when the Bears’ Dequon Miller scored on a drive to reduce the Aces’ lead to 48-45. D.J. Balentine-the leading active scorer in the country-followed with two three-pointers. Boom.
Egidijus Mockevicius seemed to spend most of the game in foul trouble or getting scored over by MSU indomitable (and five inches shorter) senior Camyn Boone. Yet when the final numbers came in, the Evansville big man had 12 points and 18 rebounds-more than any player has in 26 years of Arch Madness-and his NCAA Division I-leading 27th double-double.
Evansville finished off a 66-56 win over Missouri State to advance to the semifinals of MVC tourney for just the second time in 17 years. It’s fitting, as this is the Purple Aces’ best season since that 1998-99 team won the Valley regular season title and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
What was also fitting was how Evansville won so covertly. The Purple Aces have now won 24 games quietly and with relatively little fanfare, making them one of the more underappreciated success stories you’ll find anywhere.
One might expect otherwise for a team with a pair of two-time first-team all-MVC selections in Balentine and Mockevicius and has followed a Collegeinsider.com Tournament title a year ago with a successful season. But while it’s a team that can display flashes of offensive brilliance-such as scoring 18 points in the game’s first seven minutes-the truth is the Aces are a workmanlike bunch that doesn’t always win pretty, but gets the job done far more than not.
Indeed, Evansville had to earn this one. After the good start, a rough stretch followed, with 11 points over the next 13 minutes. Missouri State’s Boone also was an absolute handful, with 24 points in the game’s first 28 minutes. Mockevicius also got in some foul trouble that limited him to 28 minutes, a low number for a team that at times has only played six players regularly.
The Purple Aces responded late, though. In addition to Balentine’s daggers and Adam Wing hitting four free throws in the final minute as part of his 13 points, Evansville also slowed Boone late, holding him to just two points in the final 12:49.
“I’m not sure we ever totally broke out of it,” said Evansville coach Marty Simmons said of the team’s first-half funk. “I mean, the start was terrific. I thought we had great ball movement. We weren’t stopping them on the defensive end (but) certainly we’re getting up and down. The rhythm of the game was pretty good. We were knocking in shots.
“They picked up their intensity a little bit. They were really active. We turned it over a little bit. We missed some open looks. When you go through stretches like that, usually, it’s not one thing, it’s multiple things. A lot of things that we were doing really well at the beginning, we quit doing well, and we dribbled it a lot more instead of moving the basketball. I felt like, when we moved it and we cut, we were better. When we tried to dribble it around the perimeter, they do a great job of matching up with you.”
A key for the Purple Aces was their ability to play without Mockevicius during a key stretch in the second half. The big man known as ‘Iggy’ picked up his fourth foul with 9:25 left in the game and Missouri State down just 46-43, but Balentine soon stepped up with two huge, cold-blooded three-pointers to push the lead out to nine. The Bears never got closer than six the rest of the way.
“Any time Egidijus goes down, it’s going to hurt us,” said Balentine. “He’s such a big part of our team. But we played small, and we moved the ball around. I got a few open looks, some contested. But shots just started falling. We played really well together, though.”
“He loves the moment,” said Simmons, “and he’s as confident as any player that we’ve ever coached. He stepped up and made two big ones there.”
Adaptability helped Evansville survive despite shooting 40.4%-nearly 10% below its season average. It will be a key in their chances to go even further in St. Louis.
There’s still time for this Evansville team to make even more of a mark. The Purple Aces have already checked one item off their March list-getting to the semifinals for the first time in the careers of seniors Balentine, Mockevicius and Wing. Coming up next is a meeting with sixth-seeded Indiana State in the semifinals.
“We’re just extremely thankful just to advance to the semis,” said Wing. “I know this senior class with D.J., Egidijus, and I, we’ve never made it to the semifinals, but we’re thankful to be in the position we’re in. I know it’s not going to be an easy road ahead, but we’ve got a good group of guys.”
“Well, we’ve got to build on it,” said Simmons. “They understand what they’re playing for. They understand this is their last go round. They’ve been absolutely terrific for four years. But we’ve got to build on it.
“We’ve got to play better. No matter who we play, it’s going to be a difficult matchup, and taking care of the basketball will be a key again.”