In its first College Basketball Invitational (CBI) post-season tournament appearance in program history, the Illinois State men’s basketball team earned a first-round win over Morehead State in a 77-67 decision Wednesday night at Redbird Arena.
With the win, Illinois State will continue on to not only play in, but host the quarterfinal round of the CBI against Texas A&M on Monday, March 24 at Redbird Arena. The Aggies mark the first-ever Southeastern Conference (SEC) opponent to play at Redbird Arena and only the second (Mississippi) to play in Normal. “[Playing Texas A&M] is a great opportunity. They are a terrific team,” ISU head coach Dan Muller said. “An SEC team coming in here on a Monday night, hopefully we’ll have a terrific crowd. Our guys will be excited.”
Postseason play of any kind is new for this season’s Redbird squad as Nick Zeisloft and John Jones, who were on the team when ISU appeared in the 2012 NIT, did not play due to redshirting and ineligibility, respectively. This year’s team is the least experienced program in Division I basketball this season.
“I think the experience to be able to go out and play with that type of [tournament] pressure, [where] you have to win to keep playing, is an important skill to have for a team or a program going forward,” Muller said. “We want to be winning tournaments. This experience is critical for this team. They handled it very well and I thought we learned a lot over the last week and half about that.”
ISU accepted the invitation to play in the CBI Sunday night after bowing out of the Missouri Valley Conference championship tournament in the quarterfinal round against Missouri State.
“We love the game of basketball,” ISU junior guard Bobby Hunter said. “The Missouri Valley Conference tournament didn’t work as we planned, now we get another chance to play in a tournament and we accepted that and we’re kind of using that as preparation for next year in the Missouri Valley and to get better.”
Daishon Knight led the Redbirds in their offensive campaign with 18 points, while Hunter (16 points), Zeisloft (13 points) and Lynch (12 points) rounded out the Redbird quartet in double figures. John Jones, who returned to the lineup from injury for the first time since Jan. 25, finished with six points, including a slam dunk to close out the first half.
“John was great — [played] 12 minutes in the first half of his 17 [total],” Muller said. “His physicality helps us. I thought for his first game back in seven weeks he was terrific. I’m excited he got to play tonight and he’ll get another game this year.”
The Eagles maintained a small, single-digit lead over the first six minutes of play before Knight nailed a trey to give ISU its first lead of the game at 8-7. The teams would continue to exchange baskets throughout the first half but ISU would grab the 33-25 lead at the half.
Coming out of the locker rooms, the Eagles went on a 12-5 run to cut the ISU lead down to one point at 38-37. Knight then scored five-straight points for the Redbirds to make the score 43-37 with 16 minutes left in the second period. Morehead State would get as close as eight points, but the Redbirds held on, growing their lead to as much as 18 points with 2:40 left in the game, to secure the 77-67 win.
ISU will take on Texas A&M Monday at Redbird Arena, time is to be determined. The cost is $5 for students, $10 for upper bowl tickets and $15 for lower bowl tickets.