‘Birds fly past Sycamores to advance to Friday for first time in three years
Written by Eric Schweizer on March 3, 2022
ST. LOUIS, MO – For the first time in three years the Redbirds advance to the second of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament after defeating the Indiana State Sycamores 58-53, in a thrilling opening round matchup.
The Redbirds struck first as sophomore guard Howard Fleming Jr. nailed two threes to open the first half. The Redbirds defensive intensity showed in the early minutes as redshirt junior Abdou Ndiaye recorded two consecutive blocks.
The Sycamores were not fazed by the Redbirds quick start as Cameron Crawford scored six straight points to put the Sycamores in front 10-8.
Back-to-back steal by the Redbirds led to two consecutive dunks by Redbird guard Josiah Strong. A momentum changer as the Redbirds went back up 12-10. The Redbirds started hot, hitting their first two threes but could not find the basket as they missed their next six shots from behind the arc in the first ten minutes of the game.
“Our guys just stayed the course. There was a lot of ugly mistakes especially defensively. A lot of settling for long jump shots at times.” Illinois State head coach Brian Jones said. “These guys hit huge shots to get our rhythm going and our confidence going.”
Nothing was falling for the Redbirds through the first 12 minutes of the first half as the Redbirds started 6-21 from the field. The Sycamores on the other hand found their stride, going up 17 to 14 with 7:46 to go in the first half, forcing a time out from Illinois State.
Out of the timeout the Redbirds and Sycamores traded threes as Liam McChesney answered for the Redbirds. After the threes, both teams would go on four-minute scoring droughts before Sycamore forward Kailex Stephens ended the drought with a break away slam to put them up 22-19 with 3:11 to go.
The defensive heavy lineup showed for Illinois State as the offense struggled, going on a five and a half scoring drought that was ended by star guard Antonio Reeves. Indiana State head coach Josh Schertz called a timeout with 1:02 left in the first half as his team was up 25-21.
Both teams traded buckets in the final minute of the half as the Sycamores found themselves up 28-23 at the half.
The Redbirds were 10-33 from the field, including 3-14 from behind the arc. Leading the Redbirds in the first half was Fleming Jr. with six points and four rebounds.
For the Sycamores sophomore guard Zach Hobbs led all scorers with nine points while his teammate Julian Larry recorded 7 rebounds and 2 assists in the first half.
The Redbirds again kicked off the scoring to open the half, this time by a layup from Kendal Lewis, followed by a breakaway dunk from Reeves to bring the ‘Birds within one, 28-27.
“I continued to stay poised and stay in my head. We played together as a team.” Reeves said.
Despite nearly no fouls being called in the first half, things switched gears in the second half as a combined six fouls were called in the first six minutes of the game.
After being knotted at 33 all, the Sycamores went on an 8-0 scoring run with three pointers coming from Stephens and Xavier Bledson, forcing the Redbirds to use their second time out with 12:10 remaining.
Out of the Media timeout the Redbirds answered the Sycamores run with a run of their own, scoring five points in less than 30 seconds, leading to a Sycamore timeout as the Redbirds came within five, 43-38.
“We kind of started to find a little more of a flow and our defense stayed consistent which helped our offense find it’s rhythm in the second half.” Strong said.
It was a battle between the Redbirds and Sycamores as they went shot for shot midway through the second half with back-to-back threes from Josiah Strong pushing the Redbirds back in front of the Sycamores 47-45. But just as quick as the Redbirds got that lead, Zach Hobbs answered for the Sycamores with a three of his own, giving them a one-point advantage with 6:47 remaining.
“Once the first one went in, they kept trying to find me. They hit me in open shots, and I stepped up and knocked a couple down.” Strong said.
The battle continued as each team answered one another, with one-point leads going back and forth. A soft put back layup by the Redbirds forward Abdou Ndiaye put the Redbirds up 53-52 heading into the final media timeout with 1:58 remaining.
“I was more impressed with how we guarded in the second half, holding them to 33% shooting and then making some timely shots down the stretch.” Jones said.
A big time shot clock buzzer beater by Antonio Reeves with 1:33 put the Redbirds up three and forced the Sycamores to use another timeout.
“We finally got something at the rim. Before that we were settling for quick and long shots.” Jones said. “Our guys really responded out of timeouts tonight and that shows growth.”
With the game on the line Sycamore guard Cooper Neese was unable to knock down the potential game tying free throws, leading the Sycamores to begin fouling with 23 seconds left. Fleming Jr. would knock down one of two free throws to put the Redbirds up 56-53.
Missed opportunities plagued the Sycamores however as they were unable to knock down the game tying bucket and would fall to the Redbirds 58-53.
“I’m just grateful for this opportunity to continue to play. That second half these guys really defended at a high level.” Jones said.
The Redbirds were led by Antonio Reeves with 15 points along with Kendall Lewis who grabbed eight boards while Fleming Jr. led the team with four assists.
“We gotta focus on taking care of our bodies first.” Lewis said “We gotta act like it’s a whole new game. We’re pretty good at locking back in but we’re going to feel this game tomorrow.”
The Redbirds season will continue tomorrow when they take on the number one seeded Northern Iowa Panthers at noon.