While junior guard Zach Copeland stood at the free-throw line to complete a three-point play, Illinois State head coach Dan Muller looked like he was jumping an invisible jumprope as he yelled across the floor at senior Milik Yarbrough to pick up the pace.
One minute later, Yarbrough lobbed a pass for another signature Matt Chastain alley-oop slam to give ISU a 48-42 lead with 9:17 left in the game.
As the importance of each passing possession amplifies, it was only fitting that within the meat-grinding Missouri Valley Conference, ISU and MSU’s Wednesday night showdown at Redbird Arena came down to the final minutes.
As expected, ISU seniors Yarbrough and Phil Fayne carried the offensive weight as the duo totaled game-highs 28 and 18 points, respectively, leading the Redbirds to a 65-57 win, ISU's third time this season knocking down the MVC first-place team.
“Milik was obviously a beast, we needed it," Muller said. "He had a lot of huge plays down the stretch, he scored the last 10, we needed every one of them."
Yarbrough gave ISU its first three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer as the Redbirds took a meager 25-24 lead into the break.
“I came with the same mindset that I did last game and even last time against Missouri State, but I got it going early this time,” Yarbrough said.
The Redbirds were able to get stops when they needed, holding MSU to 38.8 percent shooting (19-49 FG) and 23.5 percent from three-point range (4-17 3FG).
“Our defense has been better, I liked that. I still thought we played a B, B-minus game as far as execution and how we played, but we played with great effort and that’s where it starts,” Muller said.
Physical play progressed in the second half as tension also grew in the Redbird Arena stands. ISU committed five fouls in the first five minutes, most of which accompanied with echoes of boos.
The Redbirds almost became too accustomed to the foul calling that Muller screamed at his team, “That’s not a foul, play hard,” as time became of essence in a tight game.
The Bears committed 15 fouls while the Redbirds committed 19, however, Muller was fine with the calling. He was also fine with the call when MSU senior guard Ryan Kreklow hacked Yarbrough with 15 seconds left that put the game out of reach. MSU head coach Dana Ford had a separate opinion from the Bears' bench.
“[It was] the right call on the foul, so Milik stepped up there and made two huge free throws. I thought the officiating crew was fantastic tonight,” Muller said.
Yarbrough made six free throws in a row in the final 26 seconds, finishing 11-for-11 at the free-throw line.
Outside of Yarbrough and Fayne, ISU had little contribution from its other two seniors in their final game at Redbird Arena.
Senior guard Keyshawn Evans shot just 1-for-5 with two points, while senior forward William Tinsley compiled five points on 2-for-5 shooting and five rebounds.
Averaging just 2.6 points per game entering Wednesday, the Redbirds received early contribution from freshman forward Rey Idowu after both teams hit a hard cold spell within the first 10 minutes of the game.
The Redbirds only led the Bears 4-2 just over five minutes in, and then 6-2 almost 10 minutes in.
Idowu provided a spark to the slow-starting offense, surpassed his average just over 10 minutes into the game. He finished with seven points (3-5 FG) and six rebounds in 16 minutes.
Nevertheless, the Redbirds finished Wednesday's game better than others this season, especially better than their first meeting with the Bears.
“It wasn’t in the back of everybody’s mind, but then again, you gotta live in the moment, so you just got to forget the past,” Fayne said. “We ended the game against Missouri State this time pretty good."
With just one game remaining, the Redbirds will need a win at Southern Illinois to avoid the dreaded Thursday play-in game at the MVC Tournament after the Salukis defeated Evansville Wednesday night to keep pace with the Redbirds.
"You gotta live in the moment like Phil said," Tinsley said. "You just gotta worry about the next game, playoff mindset. Practice, good prep, and just all mentally, road warriors and just get the win."
"I like that," Fayne added. "Road warriors. Fierce."