Team Profile: Illinois State – Niagara Recap
Niagara 70, Illinois State 56
No matter how much Illinois State chiseled at its lead, Niagara was not going to be denied on this night, in this game.
In the opening act of the 2009 ESPNU Bracketbusters, the Purple Eagles sprinted out to a big lead in front of the faithful Gallagher Center crowd and held on for a 70-56 win over Illinois State.
There are two illustrations that exemplify exactly why there was no denying this would be Niagara’s night.
Early in the second half, Illinois State’s Landon Shipley hit a triple to cut Niagara’s lead to 11. The Purple Eagles’ Bilal Benn quickly rushed up the court, clanking a hurried triple off the side of the rim. The rebound fell calmly into the hands of a Redbird player standing hear the baseline.
Not giving up on the play, Niagara’s Anthony Nelson snuck up behind the player, popped the ball loose and, while flying out of bounds with ball in hand, tossed it over his shoulder to Benn who excited the crowd with an uncontested two-handed slam.
Just to make sure the Purple and silver clad crowd knew there was no reason to be anxious, Niagara gave its fans another you-can-breathe-easier moment.
Near the midpoint of the second half, Illinois State had trimmed the lead to 11 once again. Making sure Niagara wasn’t going to stop the momentum, the Redbirds played swarming half-court defense, especially on Benn, who was handling the ball.
The defense worked as Benn took an ill-advised faded away jumper. Nevertheless, despite Illinois State having four red jerseys under the basket, the one silver jersey, that of Kamau Gordon, Niagara retained possession. The quick scrum had Gordon dish the ball out the top of the key where Rob Garrison calmly swished a triple that broke the Redbirds’ back once again.
It was the story of the second half for Illinois State. The Redbirds would finally go on a little run and seize the momentum, only to have it stolen right back — and in dramatic fashion.
While the score would indicate Niagara won going away – and, for the most part, that could be true – it shouldn’t be underestimated how well Illinois State played for the final 24 minutes.
Prior to the four-minute mark in the first half, the game was ugly. Niagara had built a 35-15 lead while capitalizing on several Illinois State mistakes.
At one point in the game, Illinois State had 15 turnovers, and 14 of those were Niagara steals.
But, once the clock struck four minutes, Illinois State was a different team. The Redbirds closed the half on an 8-0 run and trailed by just 12 at the break. But that, like so many other comeback attempts, was just another tease for the Redbird faithful. The fact remains, Illinois State has lived by the three-pointer all season and, on this frosty February night, the shots weren’t falling (4-for-18) and that played a huge role in the rout.
Tyrone Lewis led Niagara with 19 points and four steals while Benn had 17 points and 12 boards despite shooting just 5-for-16 from the field. Point guard Anthony Nelson had a quiet day with six points, but he did dish out six assists and grabbed three steals.
Champ Oguchi had 19 points and seven boards to lead Illinois State. Brandon Sampay added a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) off the bench while Emmanuel Holloway added 10 points, five steals and four assists in the losing effort.
NCAA TOURNAMENT IMPLICATIONS
The Numbers: RPI (60); SOS (190)
Biggest Win: Creighton (86-64)
Final Analysis:Well, that 14-0 start is history and the NCAA Selection Committee will view it the same way. The Redbirds (22-6) feasted on a weak nonconference schedule and haven’t done much to prove they’re a NCAA Tournament team. In all honesty, a win here would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have erased the fact Illinois State was swept by the 7-19 Indiana State Sycamores. The Redbirds have two big regular season games left – Tuesday vs. Northern Iowa at home and Saturday at Creighton. Illinois State would have to win both games to have any possible chance to secure an at-large bid. Nevertheless, logic says Unless Illinois State wins the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, the Redbirds will not reach their first NCAA Tournament since 1998.
The Numbers: RPI (69); SOS (174)
Biggest Win: Illinois State (70-56)
Final Analysis:Without doing a preview on this game, it will be tough to believe me here, but I felt Niagara wouldn’t only win but would do so by a good 8- or 10-point margin. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team that gets all the publicity is Siena. And you’ll get no argument from me here on not Siena deserving praise. But, sitting in second place in the conference is the small team from Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara (22-7) doesn’t have a gaudy 30 wins nor do the Purple Eagles have any recent Tournament success that would make fans around the country want to see this Cinderella get another chance in March. But, what Niagara does have is quick guards and the ability to surprise. The Purple Eagles have one big game left before the conference tournament – Feb. 27 vs. Siena at home. Count me down as hoping Niagara can beat Siena then and in the MAAC Tournament final to grab one of those No. 12 or No. 13 seeds.