(MCT) — NORMAL — Three weeks ago, it looked like this basketball season was on the verge of collapse.
Illinois State, picked to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, was 0-6 in the league and battling some internal issues. Instead of playing for the Valley lead, the Redbirds faced Southern Illinois on Jan. 20 in Carbondale trying to get out of the basement.
“Starting 0-6 in the conference we did not want to do that, but we put ourselves in that situation and we had to work ourselves out,” said senior guard Tyler Brown. “That’s what we’ve been doing as a team.”
The Redbirds still aren’t .500 in the Valley. Plenty of work remains to be done in the final five league games. But ISU approaches the last three weeks of the regular season in a totally different place.
Saturday night’s 75-72 victory against No. 16-ranked and Valley-leading Creighton at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., showed the Redbirds (15-10) can play with the best in the league — and country. It was ISU’s first true road victory against a ranked opponent in 28 years, the last coming at No. 17 Tulsa in 1985.
ISU is now tied for sixth place in the Valley at 6-7 with Bradley, but only one game out of fourth which is shared by Northern Iowa and Evansville. Coincidentally, rival Bradley comes to Redbird Arena at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday.
“This team has stayed together through a lot of adversity. We knew what we were about,” said senior Jackie Carmichael. “We knew what we were capable of. We’re peaking at the right time. We’ll take it one game at a time, for sure, but this feels great.”
The Redbirds rode the hot hands of Brown and Johnny Hill, along with a superb defensive effort, to snap a six-game losing streak against Creighton.
Brown came out sizzling after halftime when ISU trailed,
39-36. He scored 23 of his game-high 27 points after the intermission, including 11 straight for the Redbirds in one stretch.
“He was really down at half. He missed some shots he thought he should have made,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “But he kept playing. His attitude has been so good when you do that, things like this can happen. He’s one of the best players in this league and he certainly played like it tonight.”
Creighton might have expected that. But Hill’s effort caught the Bluejays by surprise. The sophomore point guard scored 19 points, making 7 of 12 field goal attempts and only his second 3-pointer of the season. He also added seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and only one turnover.
Hill played a season-high 37 minutes as his back-up, freshman Kaza Keane, was held out after suffering a concussion near the end of Wednesday’s game at Drake.
“I realized I’m going to have to pick it up for these seniors,” said Hill. “Coach drew up on the board the number of games our seniors have (left), and it kind of really hit my heart and struck a couple emotions for me.
“It was two things. I remember how my senior year was in high school, and I love those guys. Ty and Jackie are like brothers to me. They all put me under their wing last year when I was having a tough time and really gave me confidence. I told those guys I’m all bought in.”
ISU collectively bought into stressing defense first about three weeks ago. Against Creighton, this was the Redbirds’ finest defensive effort. ISU held the nation’s best shooting team to 37.9 percent from the field (25 of 66) and 17.4 percent outside the arc (4 of 23).
Muller switched to a 2-3 zone with nine minutes left, partly to protect John Wilkins and Jon Ekey who had four fouls each, and Creighton looked befuddled. The Bluejays’ point guard, Austin Chatman, was on the bench with four fouls and Creighton struggled without him.
“The zone messed them up a lot. I could tell that they did not know what to do,” said Brown, who also had five assists. “They seemed scattered and we had them all spread out.”
Even when ISU gave Creighton an extra chance after Wilkins was called for traveling when all alone as the buzzer sounded, the Redbirds made one last defensive stand. Officials checked the monitor and put a second back on the clock.
ISU batted down a long pass intended for All-American Doug McDermott, who only scored seven of his 24 points in the second half, and sent the second biggest crowd in CenturyLink Center history (18,494) home disappointed.
“That’s a heck of a win against a heck of a team. Creighton is deserving of their ranking,” said Muller. “I’m very proud of my guys. We just guarded. We executed the game plan. In a game like this you have to have multiple guys step up and make big plays, and we certainly did.”