The seniors aren’t ready to hang up their shoes just yet.
Illinois State men’s basketball defeated University of California, Irvine 85-71 Wednesday night on Doug Collins Court to advance to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. The small, but mighty crowd of 5,124 helped cheer on the Redbirds to victory.
The team was led by senior forward Deontae Hawkins, who scored a total of 22 points, grabbed five rebounds and handed out one assist. His teammates noticed his focused demeanor and used it to their advantage.
“When we go through layup lines, I could just tell his whole facial expression was like ‘let’s get this done,’” senior guard Paris Lee said. “It feeds off everyone on the team because we see Deontae going, and it just makes everyone want to go.”
Hawkins opened the scoring with a three pointer, and continued his above the arc prowess, going 6-6 for three pointers.
“I just wanted to play hard for my teammates and for the coaches and for the community,” Hawkins said. “(The basket) looked pretty big, but I just want to thank my teammates for finding me and giving me good looks.
The team had a season-high number of assists with 22, beating the previous season-high of 20 against Bradley.
“It’s easy to get assists when you got somebody (Hawkins) just throwing a rock in the ocean,” Lee said. “But we were just making the right plays. It was a lot of good basketball today.”
After barely missing the cut lf the NCAA tournament, the `Birds had to make the best of being invited to the NIT. Lee believes the team is focused on the task at hand.
“You can tell in practice that some guys are like ‘man, I mean, I’m grateful we’re here, but it’s not the NCAA tournament,’” Lee said. “Then once we got settled in practice, everyone is like ‘might as well win it while we’re doing it.’ So, that’s a goal of ours right now, since we’re not in the NCAA tournament: to try to win the NIT.”
Coach Dan Muller emphasizes the importance of enjoying the game and the journey, while keeping basketball at the forefront.
“It’s important to me these guys have fun during this process,” Muller said. “But, you have to play good basketball to have fun.”
The biggest challenges ISU faced were guards Jaron Martin and Luke Nelson. Martin finished with 24 points and Nelson with 17. Not only did Martin and Nelson score high digits, they scored difficult shots.
“Those two guards are really good and hit some incredible shots,” Muller said. “All you want to do on defense is force teams to take tough shots. If they make them or not, you can’t control that.”
Muller is “fired up” for Monday’s 6 p.m. game against the University of Central Florida at Redbird Arena. WZND will be covering the NIT games live from Redbirds Arena. Tune into 103.3 FM for the latest ISU basketball news.