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Illinois State displays depth to move on at Arch Madness

March 3, 2017 Columns No Comments

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Less than 10 minutes into its first Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as a top seed in nearly 20 years, Illinois State could’ve been facing a defining moment in its postseason.

With 10:21 left in the first half, MVC player of the year Paris Lee picked up his second foul and went to the bench. After two free throws, eighth-seeded Evansville held a 17-12 lead, looking very capable of making the Redbirds’ day a long one and maybe even their stay at Arch Madness a short one. Illinois State was in an early danger zone and needed to weather time without its leader.

Enter Keyshawn Evans. The 6-foot sophomore guard came in for Lee and hit a big three-pointer. He then had a steal, and a minute later added another triple. In all, Evans scored 11 points in the first half, and the work of him and others off the bench helped the Redbirds take control and go on to defeat the plucky Purple Aces 80-69 in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals.

Evans and D.J. Clayton combined for 20 points off the bench in the first half alone, while center Daouda (David) Ndiaye added two blocked shots. In all, reserves scored 20 of the first 33 points for ISU and helped it post a big 30-8 advantage in points from the bench in the win.

“I guess you could just say me and D.J. take pride coming off the bench and trying to bring energy,” said Evans, who finished with 16 points and four steals. “A lot of guys in for the other team are usually tired when we get in. We kind of make it a big thing for us…it’s big that we come in and give energy to everybody.”

“It’s good to know, when starters go down, it’s guys that can just come in and play big minutes like Keyshawn, Madison, Daouda, D.J. did,” said Lee after the game. “It was one play in the game when D.J. came in and made a backboard three and I think he got a layup. I think from right there we just got going. Keyshawn, he played unbelievable today. So kudos to my bro.”

Illinois State’s storybook season has been primarily led by veterans. Lee, Deontae Hawkins, MiKyle McIntosh and Tony Wills are a core that has been together for three years now, growing this program from Valley contender into a championship club.

Hawkins was excellent on both ends with 19 points and four blocked shots, part of a school and MVC Tournament-record 14 blocks by the Redbirds. Lee finished with 13 points and seven assists, and Wills played outstanding defense on Evansville guard Jaylon Brown, who needed a late burst to get to 24 points but was just 7 of 25 from the field. McIntosh was quiet, but he’s still working back into form after a midseason injury that cost him several games.

The Redbirds are much more than that foursome, though. Newcomer Phil Fayne is the fifth starter and has been a solid contributor-nearly 10 points and more than six boards per game-while also helping ISU maintain its length and athleticism that have become a hallmark of coach Dan Muller’s teams. Clayton and Evans are the leaders off the bench along with Ndiaye and versatile Madison Williams.

Illinois State has had a superb example to measure its backups by. Wichita State is the gold standard of bench play in the MVC-and just about anywhere in the country this year not named Florida State. The Shockers are regularly excellent at developing and using depth, but the Redbirds also now have depth that can help them go far in March. ISU has needed it this year, too.

“We’re healthier now than we’ve been in over a month,” said Muller. “Madison Williams, as you can see, is clearly healthy now. MiKyle is getting there. Obviously, didn’t have a great MiKyle game, but he’s getting healthier. We always trusted our bench. Again, when MiKyle went down, those guys stepped up and made big plays.

“We’ve got great leadership, but we also really trust those young guys. They’ve gotten good quality minutes. I would say this is — we probably have two or three guys that had not very good games today, but we have enough depth and enough guys that can play multiple positions that we’ll be okay usually.”

Of course, the Redbirds still have the questions about just where their postseason destination lies. Even with a Valley regular season co-championship and just one loss at full strength all year, Illinois State is no sure thing for the NCAA Tournament. Which is something the team can’t concern itself with on the court.

“We talked a lot about it,” said Muller, “the fact we’ve been focusing on the process the last week and a half, which we talked about, no secret. And we’re really trying to not worry about Sunday or the ring or the championship.

“We’ve been playing our best because we’ve been just focusing on the here and now. They’ve really bought into that. They talk it themselves. They talk about it in huddles. I’m pretty confident that we’ll do that. We know we’re going to play a quality opponent (in the semifinals). We’ll start the preparation when this game’s over. As the guys said, we talk about it all the time, got to just keep chopping wood.”

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