Illinois State had every reason to celebrate after Saturday’s semifinal win over No. 15 Wichita State.
The task is to recover and regroup for today’s championship game against No. 25 Creighton. Illinois State needs one more big win to really celebrate.
“I think we’ll use this as momentum,” Redbirds junior Jackie Carmichael said. “It’s not the culture of our team to have this big a letdown. We’ve worked our tails off to get to this point and I feel like we’re going to keep working through tomorrow.”
The Redbirds won their first two games with defense and rebounding. They shot 33.9 percent in the win over WSU. They shot 34.5 percent in Friday’s 54-42 quarterfinal win over Northern Iowa.
“I never, ever thought we could shoot 33 percent and beat this team,” Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. “I don’t care how you slice it, but that is nothing but grit and toughness, and all the things that are dear to a coach. I’ve tried to teach these guys from Day 1, it’s all about winning games when you don’t shoot well.”
Jankovich wouldn’t mind a different scenario today. His team won’t make the NCAAs as an at-large entrant.
“I think we’re due like nobody else to start shooting the ball,” he said.
Illinois State will make its third championship appearance in the past five seasons. It lost in 2008 to Drake and 2009 to Northern Iowa.
Even when the Bluejays won, it wasn’t easy. Their final three games were decided by a total of four points.
But Creighton loves St. Louis for a reason. After a tough quarterfinal win over Drake, the Bluejays routed Evansville 99-71. They made 12 of 23 three-pointers and handed out 22 assists on 32 baskets.
“They were hard to guard in all aspects,” Aces coach Marty Simmons said. “We struggled guarding the ball. We struggled with guarding the post.”
Creighton center Gregory Echenique scored a career-high 20 points to put the Bluejays into their 11th title game, most of any school.
“I thought the way our five starters started the game really carried us,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “When Greg got established and dug down low, the shots started coming easy.”
Creighton has won seven tournament titles in St. Louis, most recently in 2007.
Ryan encountered much more resistance Saturday. He scored 13 points and made 3 of 12 shots.
“They made sure they always had a guy in my face,” he said.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott wanted to use his depth to wear on the legs of Ryan and forward Denver Holmes.
“We could keep fresh guys on Colt Ryan and Denver Holmes, when they don’t have another Colt Ryan or Denver Holmes coming off the bench to do what those guys do,” he said. “We wore into them as the game went on.”
The Valley started picking the Most Improved team in 1994-95. In recent seasons, Illinois State center Dinma Odiakosa and Drake guard Adam Emmenecker made both five-man teams. Former Shocker guard L.D. Swanson earned second-team honors and Most Improved in 1995.
Stutz is also a rare two-time member of the Most Improved Team. He is the fourth player, joining Bradley’s Aaron Zobrist (1995, 1997), Southern Illinois’ Monte Jenkins (1997, 1999) and Illinois State’s Shawn Jeppson (1999, 2000).