After a pair of close losses to Wichita State in the regular season, Illinois State knocked off the No. 8 Shockers, 65-62, in in Missouri Valley Conference semifinals on Saturday.
Illinois State trailed by eight points at halftime but outscored the Shockers 43-32 in the second half to earn the upset.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our group,” Illinois State head coach Dan Muller said on CBS Sports Radio’s Ferrall on the Bench. “Wichita State is really, really, really good. They’re going to win a bunch of games this year.”
They did. In fact, the Shockers (28-4) entered Saturday with just three losses all season and had won 18 of their previous 19 games.
“We had two close games with them this year,” Muller said. “At their place, it was a two-point game with three minutes left, and at our place, it was a two-point game with three minutes left. So we match up pretty well with them. We were down eight at half, came out, made big plays. Daishon Knight was unbelievably good. But it kind of just came down to being tough enough to withstand their pressure and make plays.”
Knight, a senior, had 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the floor. He made three three-pointers and finished with four rebounds, one assist and one steal. Guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell added 10 points, five rebounds and two assists, while center Reggie Lynch had 11 points, seven rebounds and five blocks.
“We’ve got talent,” Muller said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things. We’re athletic. We handle the ball well, we can press, we can zone. But again, to beat a team like Wichita State, you got to play really good. I thought at the beginning of the year, we had a chance to be one of the better teams in our league. The injuries set us back a little bit, but we got a chance tomorrow to see where we’re at against a very good team.”
Illinois State (21-11, 11-7), which has won six straight games, plays No. 11 Northern Iowa (29-3, 16-2) in the MVC Championship on Sunday at 2:05 p.m. ET.
“Northern Iowa and Wichita State deserve to be a 3- or 4-(seed) – 5 at the most – in the NCAA Tournament, and they’re going to make some noise,” Muller said. “We got to figure out how to guard (Seth) Tuttle, and we got to guard the three-point line – and that is much easier said than done, trust me.”
The key for the Redbirds will be keeping its composure – something they didn’t do early on against Wichita State.
“That’s why we got down in the first half,” Muller said. “They had about four steals in five or six possessions and converted them for baskets. Before that, we were playing so well offensively, and then after that, even though they weren’t turning us over, we were a little shook. We weren’t executing like we were to start the game. We weren’t being as aggressive getting inside like we should. Luckily, it was only eight points at half because our defense is good. We settled down at halftime.”
Illinois State shot 63 percent from the floor in the second half.
“We just went out there and played,” Muller said of his young squad. “We’re just kind of learning how to play and embrace the moment in the big game. We’ve won three games in a row in the last two or three minutes. Our team’s confident.”