NORMAL—Daishon Knight said Illinois State is still building its team chemistry even in late March. Yet something else has struck the Redbirds’ junior guard as the season winds down.
“It’s becoming more fun than actual hard work out there,” said Knight.
ISU had fun thanks to a total team effort Monday night at Redbird Arena. Knight scored a game-high 17 points, but the Redbirds got contributions from many places in a 62-55 victory over Texas A&M in a College Basketball Invitational quarterfinal game before an enthusiastic crowd of 3,251.The win advanced ISU (18-15) to a CBI semifinal game against Siena (17-17) in Albany, N.Y., at 6 p.m. Wednesday.The Redbirds grabbed a 41-35 rebounding advantage against much taller Texas A&M (18-16), with Knight hauling down a season-high nine.ISU’s inside game held its own. John Jones, in his second game back after foot surgery, tied his season high with 12 points, while freshman Reggie Lynch chipped in nine points, five rebounds and blocked a season-high six shots.The Redbirds shot 54.2 percent from the field in the second half to break away from a 27-all tie at the intermission. Texas A&M leads the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage defense.
“A lot of guys made some great plays. John Jones was terrific in the first half and everyone contributed,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “This team is playing hard and fun to coach and enjoying themselves. We knew it would be a struggle at times offensively, but we figured it out in the second half and made big plays down the stretch. The crowd that was here was great. That was fun.”
Texas A&M, the first SEC team to play at Redbird Arena, couldn’t overcome 34 percent shooting from the field (18 of 53) and 53.6 percent at the free-throw line (15 of 28). Forward Antwan Space led the Aggies with 15 points, while junior guard Jamal Jones had 14 points but made 4-of-17 field goal attempts.
“Give Illinois State credit. They attacked us inside in the first half,” said Aggies coach Billy Kennedy. “I thought their post game at both ends of the floor was the biggest difference in the game.The blocked shots that Lynch had and our inability to finish around the basket when we got the chance, and you’ve got to make free throws. We missed the front end of a couple one-and-ones and on the road in tournament play you’re not going to win games.”
Kennedy admitted Jones’ play surprised the Aggies. Jones missed 13 games after breaking a bone in his foot and returned last week against Morehead State.Jones scored 11 points in the first half and gave a struggling ISU offense a much-needed lift.Jones scored seven points in a 9-0 run that gave the Redbirds a 21-16 lead. Texas A&M regained the lead before Nick Zeisloft’s 3-pointer produced a 27-all tie at the break.The Redbirds used a 6-0 run to take the game’s biggest lead to that point at 50-44 on Knight’s 15-footer with 6:46 left. Texas A&M pulled within 54-51 after Fabyon Harris split a pair of free throws with 3:49 remaining.Lynch’s third dunk of the second half on a feed from Hunter gave ISU a 58-51 lead with 2:15 left. The Aggies got within 58-55 with 1:05 left before Knight sank four free throws in the final minute to clinch the victory.Knight made 5 of 7 shots from the field in the second half after starting 1 of 5.Hunter and Zeisloft also had eight rebounds each for the Redbirds.ISU played its second straight game without Zach Lofton. The Redbirds’ second-leading scorer remains suspended, according to Muller.This is the first season the Redbirds have beaten a team from the Big Ten (Northwestern), Big East (DePaul) and SEC.