If there's one gripe I can come up with about the otherwise wonderful set of games I've had the honor of attending this season, it's that few of them have been, shall we say, interesting games. Don't get me wrong, any college basketball game is interesting in its own way, if you look for it. And I have been rapt with attention at all of them. But aside from a regretful coach in Terre Haute and a close finish in Peoria, the games I've seen have been, by most standards, highly regular affairs.
Of course, the poetic justice from attending these average games would come by seeing what would be the most unusual game of my season in a town called Normal.
Illinois State jumped out to a fast start against the visitors from Little Rock. Redbird guard Nic Moore quickly scored a layup and three superhoops. At the first media timeout, the score stood at: Nic Moore 11, rest of ISU 4, UALR 4.
But these Trojans from Little Rock were better than being blown out. UALR came into this season as defending champions of the Sun Belt and on a high from their first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years, an 81-77 loss to UNC-Asheville in the Quad-PIG. And although the reputation of a 3-9 record preceded them, six of their nine losses were decided by single digits.
The Trojans finally came to their collective senses and began to match Illinois State basket-for-basket. Despite ISU making a season-high eight three-pointers in the first half, a string of matching threes from Taggart Lockhart and Will Neighbour (he's from England, thus the spelling is correct) prevented the Redbird lead from growing to any larger than the upper teens.
After Illinois State's eighth superhoop of the half, courtesy of Anthony Cousin, gave the Redbirds a 40-23 lead with 3:25 until halftime, I was starting to resign myself to the idea of watching another runaway game. Little did I know what would come next.
The Englishman Neighbour answered Cousin's three to make it a 14-point ISU lead. One minute later, Illinois State's Trey Blue was called for a foul while clearing out a defender with his elbows after corralling a loose ball. The referees did their due diligence and checked the TV monitor. After conferring for a minute, they determined the foul was a "flagrant one," meaning Blue could stay in the game, but UALR was awarded two free throws and possession. Ben Dillard made the two shots and the ISU lead was now 12.
On the ensuing ISU possession, Redbird guard Will Ekey drove the right side of the lane as the shot clock was running out. Two UALR defenders moved to stand in front of Ekey as he made his way toward the basket and released a layup. All three fell to the floor with the contact made. The shot went in. The referee signaled a charge on Ekey. The scoreboard added the two points to ISU's tally. After another ref huddle, the points were waved off, which if it was charging (and I'm not going to take an opinion on whether it was) would be the right call.
But the call instantly ignited a heated blast of rage from the Illinois State crowd and a violent verbal tirade from Illinois State's head coach, Tim Jankovich, who had been notably mild-mannered until then. Referee Gerry Pollard looked at Jankovich and made a quick and equally violent T with his hands, then two seconds later made another T and the classic "You're outta here!" motion. One of Jankovich's assistants wisely made the move to stand between the enraged coach and the referee, giving each enough time to collect his cool. Jankovich proceeded to his locker room without any more incidents.
The fans at Redbird Arena gave Jankovich a standing ovation as he made his way off Doug Collins Court. His disappearance into the tunnel became the cue to a chorus of boos aimed directly at the officiating crew. D'Andre Williams missed only the third of the four free throws awarded for the technical fouls, and the Illinois State lead was now nine. A foul on Illinois State on the possession after the Ts gave Ben Dillard two more free throws, which he calmly drained.
In a span of 44 seconds, UALR had scored seven points, all on free throws, and cut the ISU lead in half.
But the chippiness wasn't quite over yet. Moore and UALR's Chuck Guy tangled up near the top of the key, resulting in a common foul on Guy and double technicals on both players. Moore made the two free shots for the common foul, giving ISU a 42-33 lead. Mercifully the half ended soon after, allowing both teams and the fans to take a much needed 15-minute cool-down.
Assistant coaches on most college basketball teams are usually younger men who have been learning under a coach's wing for many years, or a former head coach who has been fired from his past job and taken in because such basketball knowledge should not be wasted. In Illinois State's case, they had the latter. After Jankovich's ejection, coaching duties fell on Rob Judson, who had an overall 74-101 record as head coach at Northern Illinois before he was let go in 2007. Jankovich quickly hired Judson as his top lieutenant, and on this night, his team was now Judson's.
But Judson's return to the helm did not go so well at first.
After a Jackie Carmichael basket 23 seconds in, Illinois State went on a nearly eight-minute scoring drought. UALR quickly went to work, with Neighbour pouring in seven of the Trojans 13-0 run, giving the road team the lead at 46-44 with a long 13:33 still to play.
Of course, in a game marked with such emotion, I figured ISU had at least one more run in them, and I guessed right. Two nice J's from Tyler Brown and a superhoop from Ekey broke the ISU scoring fast and propelled the Redbirds back to a five-point lead. The game remained within single digits the rest of the way, several times the ISU lead being just one possession. Just as free throws helped UALR in the first half, they helped the Redbirds salt away the win in the second by making 10 of 11 freebies in the last four minutes of the game.
The final buzzer sounded with Illinois State on top 72-65, the first "win" for Rob Judson in four seasons, although officially it counts to Jankovich's credit.
I walked out of Redbird Arena into a cold drizzle, something which has been another constant on my travels thus far. However this night's basketball action was far from the same-old, and I drove home content and ready for more, however exciting it may be.
at ILLINOIS STATE 72, ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK 65 12/20/2011
ARKANSAS-LITTLE ROCK 3-10 (0-0) -- D. Williams 3-13 3-4 10; W. Neighbour 8-15 0-0 19; T. Lockhart 4-7 1-3 11; C. Guy 2-11 0-0 4; B. Dillard 2-4 4-4 9; C. Jackson 1-2 3-3 5; T. Sutherland 0-2 0-0 0; E. Lawton 0-1 0-0 0; M. Louzeiro 0-0 1-2 1; M. Javes 3-5 0-1 6; R. Fondren 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-61 12-17 65. ILLINOIS STATE 8-3 (0-0) -- N. Moore 4-7 6-6 17; J. Wilkins 4-9 2-4 11; T. Brown 7-10 6-6 23; A. Cousin 1-5 0-0 3; J. Carmichael 3-5 4-6 10; J. Ekey 2-6 0-0 6; Z. Upshaw 0-1 0-0 0; B. Allen 0-3 0-0 0; J. Threloff 0-1 2-4 2; T. Blue 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-47 20-26 72.
Three-point goals: UALR 7-22 (T. Sutherland 0-1; D. Williams 1-4; B. Dillard 1-1; C. Guy 0-6; E. Lawton 0-1; T. Lockhart 2-4; W. Neighbour 3-5), ILST 10-27 (J. Ekey 2-6; Z. Upshaw 0-1; B. Allen 0-2; A. Cousin 1-4; J. Wilkins 1-3; T. Brown 3-6; N. Moore 3-5); Rebounds: UALR 32 (W. Neighbour 7), ILST 33 (J. Carmichael 9); Assists: UALR 11 (D. Williams 4), ILST 11 (A. Cousin 3); Total Fouls -- UALR 24, ILST 15; Fouled Out: UALR-C. Guy; ILST-None.