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Aces Winning Down the Stretch

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On Wednesday Evansville faced Illinois State at the Ford Center. The Aces were coming off of two straight losses against Southern Illinois and Creighton. Evansville was trying to pick up a key victory with a road contest at Wichita State next week and a home game with Indiana State to follow. The Aces started out the game strong scoring the first 7 points of the contest. Colt Ryan made 2 shots while Ned Cox hit a 3 for Evansville. The Aces played well in the first half, but also struggled and went through a stretch where they only made 2 of 11 shots. But, Evansville reversed this trend making 7 out of 9 shots to open up a sizeable lead again. Colt Ryan scored 23 first half points to help the Aces to a 42-33 advantage at the break.

 


In the second half the Aces used another scoring burst with a 13-2 run to take the lead 60-43. The Aces largest lead was 23 and Evansville cruised to victory by the final score of 79-62 over the Redbirds. Egidijus Mockevicius claimed 11 rebounds to help the Aces. Colt Ryan finished with 31 points while Ned Cox ended the evening with 16 for the Aces. Evansville finally had a dominant performance of a good Illinois State team who was on a bit of a winning streak after losing the first six games of conference play. Since that time, Illinois State had been victorious in 7 out of 10 contests. Evansville needs to put some more convincing victories such as this one together before the conference tournament. It had been a long time since Evansville had an easy victory in conference play since January 5 when the Aces defeated Southern Illinois 85-68 at the Ford Center. Evansville will need to pick up a large win on the road to show it is a team that has confidence going into the conference tournament because it is hard to win on a neutral court.

 


Marty Simmons was pleased with the Aces victory over Illinois State. “I’m happy for our guys, we have been playing better lately and have not been rewarded, so this is a nice win for us.” Ned Cox knew the importance of this game for the Aces as it pushed Evansville into fifth place in the conference standings and one game above a tie for seventh place and a date in the first round of the conference tournament. “And the winner of this game did get that one-game advantage, so this kind of gave us that sense of urgency that this is big and let’s not get in that play-in game. We’re not trying to play on Thursday night.” Aces Coach Marty Simmons knows the importance of allowing the Redbirds to shoot only seven free throws for the game. “That was a big focal point for us, which is easier said than done. They’re such an aggressive offensive team, and (Jackie) Carmichael is such an aggressive player inside that it’s hard not to foul. But our guys – they gave the effort, and I think that played a big part in the outcome…I’m just happy for the guys.” Ned Cox was proud of how the Aces bench stepped up when Colt Ryan and himself was out of the game. “Bench play was big for us just coming in and being able to maintain the way they did. I know at one point, I think Colt, Troy and myself were all out at the same time. Usually when that happens, we get a little bit stagnant. But I think they did a great job today. They were scoring the ball, so it was big for us.” Colt Ryan believes the free throw differential between the Aces and the Redbirds along with no scoring droughts for Evansville were the two keys to the Aces victory. “Our free throw percentage – Coach Simmons mentioned that they had been shooting a ridiculous amount of free throws more than their opponent the last five games. Here, we shot 28 tonight and they only shot seven. So that’s a big stat right there. I think one of the things we’ve been having trouble with in our halves and in our games is scoring droughts. I don’t think we really had a scoring drought tonight. Guys were making shots, getting to the basket and scoring.”

 


On Saturday Evansville traveled to Wright State to face the Raiders who hail from the Horizon League in the final bracket busters matchup for both squads as this is the final year for bracket busters. The Aces started out the game strong making six out of the first eight shots. Evansville exploded out to a 17-3 lead over the Raiders. Wright State scored its first basket of the game at the 12 minute mark of the first half. Evansville played tenacious defense to baffle the Raiders causing turnovers, which the Aces converted into easy baskets. The Aces showed signs of the problems the team has displayed all season. Things were going well for Evansville and then the Raiders went on a 9-0 run to cut the lead to 6 points. Also, on the road Egidijus Mockevicius picked up two fouls, which forced him to sit for the remainder of the first half. The second foul came at the eight minute mark which meant the Aces had to play without his shot blocking as well as rebounding for the rest of the half. D.J. Balentine scored 8 straight points for Evansville by making two threes to make push the lead back to double digits at 13. Wright State fought back again late in the half and cut the Aces lead to 7 from its first half high of 14 points. D.J. Balentine hit his third three of the half to put the Aces ahead 33-22 over the Raiders at the break.

 


In the second half Evansville failed to start off strong as Wright State trimmed the Aces lead to 5 points. Evansville bounced back and lead by 10 with 12 minutes remaining in the game at 49-39. D.J. Balentine hit a big three to break the Raiders back and put the Aces ahead at 64-50. Colt Ryan continued the scoring trend for the Aces as he scored 6 consecutive points to further Evansville’s advantage. The Aces were victorious 70-58 over the Wright State Raiders. Evansville will a receive a return home game from the Raiders which is one of the positives of playing the bracket buster series as it allows teams who would not usually play series against each other a chance to have a two game series.

 


With the victory Evansville picked up its third road victory of the season after wins at Tennessee Tech and Northern Iowa. In both games this week Evansville led from start to finish which is a good confidence builder heading into the final week of conference play with a road game against Wichita State and a home game against Indiana State. Ned Cox left the game with a foot injury in the first half and the Aces played well without him. Evansville allowed the Raiders to get back into the game and the Aces did not loose the lead, but rather expanded on it. This is key for Evansville as this is something the team has struggled with throughout the season. The Aces have also built some confidence as the team has won two consecutive games heading into the final two games of the season and building toward the conference tournament.

 


D.J. Balentine says he played better this game because he was more aggressive. “ I try to every game, but since I actually needed to be out there, it was just be more in control – more aggressive…Just like Colt, he loves to score and I love to score. Me wanting to score and having the ball in my hands frees him up and gives him a break. When it’s his turn, it gives him a bump to do what he does.” Balentine also believes Evansville is playing its best basketball at the end of the season. “Coach was really excited about this road win. It was the first one in a long time. But he was really excited about going to Wichita State and finishing this streak out.” Colt Ryan scored 21 for the Aces and he knows this can be a building block for Evansville. “It was a great win for us, but we’ve got to build on it. The season’s not over. We’ve got two more conference games that are big conference games that we need to win and go from there…I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Ryan also knows how important this season is not only for himself, but the other members of the senior class as well. “Coach has really challenged everyone on the team. He does it at the end of the year – says, ‘Play for your seniors.’ And I want to make sure I play for them, too.”

 

Written by theSPORTSfeast Evansville Insider Bryce Weiler

Photo Courtesy of “The Sports Beast” James Range

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