Co-champions No. 21 Wichita State and Illinois State have reached the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, but they arrived in different fashions.
Top-seeded Illinois State (26-5) won a hard-fought 80-69 victory over Evansville, while Wichita State (28-4) blew out Bradley 82-56. Their semifinal opponents (Southern Illinois for the Redbirds and Missouri State for the Shockers) also won narrow victories.
Illinois State reached the semifinals by blocking a tournament single-game record 14 shots and receiving outstanding play from its bench. Reserves Keyshawn Evans and DJ Clayton played key roles — Evans tied his career-high in scoring with 16 points and collected a career-high four steals, while Clayton added 12 points.
Those two relish their bench roles, as Evans said they call each other Six and Seven.
MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee scored 13 points and handed out seven assists, while fellow senior Deontae Hawkins scored 19 and led the block party as one of three players to swat four Evansville shots. For the fifth time this season, the Redbirds collected 11 steals.
The Salukis’ Dogged Defense
Southern Illinois got by Loyola in one of the weirdest games in recent memory. The Salukis’ 55-50 victory included nothing that you would expect. Loyola all-conference guard Milton Doyle didn’t score until the final minute of the game. SIU’s second-team, all conference forward Sean O’Brien scored two points. The MVC’s Sixth Man award winner Aundre Jackson didn’t score. SIU held Loyola, the 11th-best shooting percentage team in the nation, to under 28 percent.
The Salukis survived behind Mike Rodriguez’s 16 points and Sean Lloyd’s 14 points and four steals. After Lloyd created a tie-up, SIU coach Barry Hinson even ran on the floor and gave his player a chest bump. Hinson later said that after a play like that, you have to get fired up.
“I know I get passionate,” he said. “I know I get excited. Shoot, I ran out there like I was coming out of a Pentecostal tent revival. I was fired up. I was fired up for the Lord and fired up for Sean Lloyd. But that was a huge, huge play.”
The Shockers dominated Bradley, allowing the Braves no room to operate, causing 18 turnovers and blocking nine shots. Wichita’s defense allowed just 38 percent shooting for the Braves, and under 24 percent from long distance.
Two bench players led the Shockers in scoring as Rashard Kelly scored 14 points and Darral Willis added 17. Nine Wichita State players played double digits in minutes and 14 played at least eight minutes.
Willis says it was Kelly’s energy that got the team going.
“Well, like Coach said, this is a chance for everybody to get to March Madness,” he said. So we're going to get like everyone's best effort. So at first it was playing good defense, and Coach made substitutions. Rashard came in, and he just energized guys. He's the one that got us going.”
Missouri State reached the semifinals by defeating the two-time defending champion Northern Iowa Panthers 70-64. Newcomer of the Year Alize Johnson was spectacular, scoring 20 points and grabbing 17 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season.
Johnson says the Bears are looking forward to the challenge of playing Wichita State.
“It's going to be a really good challenge,” he said. “Northern Iowa is a great team. Just to get a chance at Wichita after being so close at home, it's a good feeling. We're going to try our hardest to play hard.”
What to Watch For
Illinois State vs. Southern Illinois, 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS Sports Network
Illinois State takes on in-state rival Southern Illinois, who played the Redbirds to the wire in both regular season contests. As always, Illinois State will rely on its defense. A top-five team nationally in defensive shooting percentage, the Redbirds are 23-1 when holding an opponent under 70 points. SIU averages just over 69 points per game.
SIU’s leading rebounder and spiritual leader Sean O’Brien struggled Friday due to back spasms. His health will be monumental in SIU’s upset hopes. ISU’s MiKyle McIntosh is still playing himself back into game shape on his surgically repaired knee. The 6’7 junior scored 15 points in the team’s final regular season game, but Friday was held to five points and five rebounds.
Wichita State vs. Missouri State, 5 p.m. CT, CBS Sports Network
Shocker players continue to talk about how hungry they are, and that is not a good sign for the upset-minded Bears of Missouri State. The Shockers don’t defeat teams, they dismantle them. They win by an average of 20 points per game, they have won 13 straight games, and Rashard Kelly says they don’t feel like they’ve accomplished anything yet.
“Well, we've been working since June together as a team,” he said. “We really didn't accomplish our goal yet. So that's what we're working on now. We kind of broke down our season into different segments and different things we wanted to grade ourselves on, and this is just another segment we're working on together as a team.”
Head coach Gregg Marshall will run waves of talented and athletic players at Paul Lusk’s scrappy Bears. MSU will need another heroic effort from Alize Johnson to have a chance.