It seems almost surreal to think we are at the midpoint of conference play in the Missouri Valley, yet on Saturday night at the Ford Center in downtown Evansville, the Purple Aces hosted Illinois State for the first rematch of the conference season. The Valley has two upper echelon teams in Creighton and Wichita State, both of whom finished the front half with league records of 8-1, and also seemed poised to find themselves on the right side of the bubble and possibly even bringing along their home whites (or perhaps grays in the case of the Shockers). The next grouping, from 3-7, all sit at either 5-4 or 4-5, with a goal of making a late season charge to avoid the abyss that is the first night of Arch Madness and secure a place in either the 8-9 or 7-10 game. At least one team out of the group of Drake, Missouri State, Northern Iowa and our two feature teams of Evansville and Illinois State will make their debut one day earlier than the rest. It's this parity that has brought out some great finishes, none more dramatic than when the Aces and Redbirds squared off in Normal. With UE up 1 and only 2.8 on the clock, this was the end result.
Evansville was out to avenge that loss, the second in a four game stretch for Evansville in which the first three games were decided by a total of five points. UE had righted the ship somewhat, thanks to an OT win and Colt Ryan going off for 39 against Bradley earlier in the week. Illinois State came calling after breaking a three game skid with a home win earlier in the week. Both teams came out hot earlier, UE on the strength of 8 early bench points by Ned Cox, who entered less than a minute in to replace a banged-up teammate. Illinois State countered with the three ball as well and it was 10-10 at the first timeout. It was then where UE used its defense and turned it into instant offense, producing perhaps the highlight of the season for the Aces as a long one handed cross court bounce pass off the dribble led to a two on one fast break that finished in a two-handed slam off the lob by Kenny Harris. Evansville continued to run in spurts and after Ryan, held scoreless for the first 11 minutes of this one, banked in a floater just before the halftime horn, UE led 42-27.
The second half featured some ebb and flow after Evansville raced out to a lead of 20 points to begin that half. ISU hit a couple shots but never seemed to be able to really get UE on their heels and forced themselves into a position where you didn't believe they could come all the way back. Every time the lead would inch down to 11 or 12, UE would calmly answer with a couple buckets of their own and that would be that. With just over 2:00 to play, ISU broke through that 10 point barrier and cut it to nine but it posed no serious threat as Evansville exacted a bit of revenge from their trip to Normal with a 79-71 victory.
It was fitting that on the last shot of the game, Evansville point guard Troy Taylor found himself with the offensive board that allowed for the final 30 seconds to be dribbled out. Taylor's not an imposing player; at a mere six-foot-even, he's oftentimes the smallest of the ten men on the floor. However, he's one of those guys who seems to see something develop and put himself into a position to make a play. Of his nine rebounds on the night, six of them were on the offensive glass, leading all players on the evening. Over this winning streak, Taylor has found himself to be almost a double-double machine with his points and rebounds, even threatening a triple-double when you throw in his assist total. It's the balance of five guys in double figures that has put the Aces at 5-4 in league play, while Illinois State dropped to 4-5 after the loss.
Evansville did what every Valley team strives to do, protected its home court while trying to go steal a game here and there on the road. The brand new Ford Center is starting to finally feel like home, producing victories the same way Roberts Stadium once did. For the fanbase, the Ford Center is starting to feel like home again as well. The building has many more bells and whistles than the old place, with the jumbotron and ribbon boards to name two of the most jarring additions but the energy is slowing starting to build as both teams begin to head towards that final stretch of play before all gathering together in St. Louis, with the hopes that one great weekend of basketball will be their gateway to a much larger stage.
at EVANSVILLE 79, ILLINOIS STATE 71 01/21/2012
ILLINOIS STATE 12-8 (4-5) -- B. Peterson 8-12 3-6 19; N. Moore 5-9 4-4 17; T. Brown 5-12 2-5 14; J. Carmichael 4-8 1-2 9; J. Ekey 2-6 0-0 5; A. Cousin 2-6 0-0 5; J. Wilkins 2-4 0-0 6; J. Threloff 3-5 2-4 8; J. Hill 1-1 2-2 5; Z. Upshaw 1-2 0-0 2; T. Blue 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-54 11-17 71. EVANSVILLE 10-9 (5-4) -- C. Ryan 6-23 6-8 20; T. Taylor 4-4 3-3 11; K. Harris 4-7 5-5 14; R. Sawvell 2-5 0-0 4; D. Holmes 3-8 7-7 14; N. Cox 6-8 0-0 16; R. Cesnulevicius 0-0 0-0 0; L. Jones 0-3 0-0 0; J. Nelson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-58 21-23 79.
Three-point goals: ILST 10-22 (T. Blue 0-1; J. Ekey 1-4; Z. Upshaw 0-1; A. Cousin 1-2; J. Wilkins 2-4; T. Brown 2-5; J. Hill 1-1; N. Moore 3-4), EVAN 8-19 (D. Holmes 1-4; C. Ryan 2-7; N. Cox 4-6; K. Harris 1-2); Rebounds: ILST 28 (J. Carmichael 9), EVAN 36 (R. Sawvell 11); Assists: ILST 18 (N. Moore 6), EVAN 17 (N. Cox 5); Total Fouls -- ILST 20, EVAN 21; Fouled Out: ILST-None; EVAN-None.