NEWS

ISU holds off Northern Iowa, 51-46

GREG STEWART

Just when it seemed Illinois State’s seventh straight win was in the books, things took a step back in time at Redbird Arena.

Ahead by 21 in the second half of Tuesday’s Missouri Valley Conference game, ISU went into a scoreless funk and needed late free throws and a defensive stop to escape Northern Iowa, 51-46.

The Redbirds went the last 8:30 without a basket in a 15-point second half, staving off the Panthers comeback by making 4 of 6 free throws in the final 45.7 seconds. To that point, ISU was 1 of 7 from the free-throw line and .278 from the field (0-9 on 3s) in the second half.

“We just got soft,” ISU senior Boo Richardson said. “We stopped being aggressive after we had that lead.”

The Redbirds (12-3, 4-0) played what coach Tim Jankovich thought might have been their best half of the season in building a 36-19 lead at intermission against the Panthers (10-5, 2-2).

Facing a zone defense that switched to a triangle-and-2, ISU’s first six baskets all came on jump shots from 12 feet or more. Then the defense, which suffocated Southern Illinois on Saturday, kicked in.

ISU forced five turnovers in a four-minute stretch and turned a 9-9 tie into a 24-9 lead that seemed to sap the strength from the bewildered visitors. UNI shot 6 for 20 (.300) and committed nine turnovers in the first half.

“Nobody told me it was going to be a doubleheader,” Jankovich said of a second half reminiscent of Redbird teams from the recent past. “We got tight, they got their heads up and turned it into a game.”

ISU led 47-29 with 8:30 to play when Anthony Slack got the last of the team’s five layups. The Redbirds hoisted six 3s and went to the foul line six times down the stretch, but nothing fell until Levi Dyer (three points in 14 minutes) and Dinma Odiakosa (three points) each made a free throw in the final minute.

UNI pieced together a 17-4 spurt to get within a possession with 2:00 left.

“That was a strange game, almost strange enough that we got lucky and won,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “We had two possessions to take the lead and that’s all we can ask for the way we played the first 30 minutes.”

Trailing 48-46 with a minute to play, UNI had Adam Koch (team-high 10 points) on the right block looking to tie the game. As Koch started his move to the basket, Richardson stripped him for a steal that led to Dyer’s free throw. On UNI’s next trip, Richardson (three steals) again disrupted the designed play and the Panthers settled for a hasty 3 from 7-1 sophomore Jordan Eglseder that didn’t go.

“To me, the highlight of the night was, with the game on the line we needed a stop and we got one,” Jankovich said. “That won’t be the last time that happens this year, I’m sure.”

’BIRD BITS: ISU sophomore Osiris Eldridge led all scorers with 13 points. ... ISU’s 15 second-half points were its fewest scored in Redbird Arena history. ... ISU has held its last three opponents under 50 points. The last time the Redbirds did that was the 1981-82 season.

Greg Stewart can be reached at 686-3202 or gstewart@pjstar.com.