TERRE HAUTE —
After three consecutive lackluster halves, Indiana State’s men’s basketball team was at a crossroads.
Down four to Missouri State at halftime on its home floor, the Sycamores could either summon the intensity they had to start the Missouri Valley Conference season and solidify their spot in the league’s top half.
Or they could fade away and find themselves mired in a mid-conference dogfight.
The Sycamores chose the former and breathed easier after a 68-60 victory in front of 5,593 in Hulman Center on Wednesday.
ISU shot 61.9 percent and had just three turnovers in the second half. The much-improved effort and intensity helped ISU outscore Missouri State 41-29 after the break.
“We came out flat. We played three halves in a row where we didn’t play our brand of basketball. We realized in the second half that we don’t get games back,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said.
“Coming in, we wanted to impose our will on the offensive and defensive end and we did a much better job in the second half.”
ISU’s defense also played its part. The Sycamores were able to score at critical times off Missouri State mistakes. The Bears had 12 turnovers, but ISU also altered other Missouri State possessions with more deflections and better intensity in the second half. The Bears shot 15 percentage points worse in the second half than they did in the first.
“We felt, even going back last week to Bradley, that we haven’t had pressure on the ball. We got some deflections, we got turnovers and we got out in transition a little bit. We were just playing better,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
ISU (11-6, 4-2) also had enviable balance. Down the roster sheet, ISU’s individual scoring was 10,10,10,10, 8, 7, 6, 4 and 3. Indiana State’s rebounding? It went 4, 4, 4, 3, 3 and 3.
Manny Arop, Justin Gant, Devonte Brown and Dawon Cummings each had 10 points. Arop, Brown and Cummings each had four rebounds.
The Sycamores chased their tails in the first half as they trailed for its entirety. Missouri State started swingman Gavin Thurman for just the second time this season and the freshman scored the first nine points of the game for the Bears.
ISU closed the gap to 17-16, but Missouri State’s 10-2 run gave the Bears a nine-point lead. ISU closed the gap to 31-27 by halftime, but the Sycamores were hurt by the inability to consistently defend during the Bears’ long offensive possessions. Missouri State shot 56 percent in the first half.
ISU attacked the basket with more zest in the second half. ISU tied it less than two minutes into the contest with all of the scoring opportunities either coming via penetration or from inside-out passes.
ISU took the lead for good on a Cummings 3-pointer with 16:26 left. A 19-6 start to the second half was capped by a stretch where Arop scored seven ISU points in succession. ISU led 46-37.
“I think it was a difference of pace. They imposed their will with a low-paced game [in the first half]. In the second half, Dawon started and it helped speed the game up. I think that’s what got us the win,” Brown said.
Missouri State (5-13, 3-3) was held at arm’s length the rest of the way, but the Sycamores couldn’t pull away from the Bears either, a familiar pattern for the Sycamores this season. ISU’s biggest lead — a 60-46 advantage — came with 3:38 left and it seemed ISU had put a stake in Missouri State’s heart.
But finishing teams hasn’t been ISU’s strong point. ISU struggled again at the line — the Sycamores converted 7 of 13 in the final two minutes, a statistic that would have hurt ISU more had Missouri State not shot 1 of 4 at the line in the same stretch.
Still, Missouri State had a smidgen of hope when Nathan Scheer buried a long 3-pointer with 27 seconds left to make it 66-60.
After ISU’s Lucas Eitel missed a pair at the line, Scheer missed another long 3 and Cummings drained a pair of free throws with 10.6 seconds left to put the game away.
The difficulty in finishing another team off was a sore spot in an otherwise bright second-half effort.
“It’s frustrating. I don’t know if we let up or if the other team steps up more, but good teams put teams away and we haven’t been able to do a good job of that. It starts with me, I have to hit free throws and others do too,” Odum said.
Lansing has taken notice of the late-game struggles too.
“We’ve done it in nearly all of the games we’ve won. We could probably put teams away a bit better with possession basketball, making free throws and by not putting them at the free-throw line. We have to get better down the stretch,” Lansing said.
ISU next plays host to Evansville on Saturday. The Purple Aces fell into a third-place tie with the Sycamores as they lost 83-69 at Drake on Wednesday.