CHICAGO — Take away D.J. Balentine, the Missouri Valley Conference’s leading scorer, and you have a good chance at beating Evansville. Loyola did that effectively Wednesday but still lost a tough one to the Aces, 65-56.
Balentine scored just 6 points, a season-low, on 2-of-12 field-goal shooting. But his second make was one of the game’s biggest shots.
Evansville (14-5, 4-3 MVC) led 59-50 with 3:13 to play, but Loyola (13-6, 3-4) rallied to cut the deficit to 59-56 in the final minute.
With 56 seconds remaining, the Ramblers had time to try for a defensive stop. Despite his rough night, Balentine was the one controlling the ball for the Aces. He darted to the hoop and converted a layup in traffic to end the Ramblers’ run.
“I thought D.J. kept his poise really well and made a huge basket there,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “I thought D.J. played with a lot of poise and made some really good decisions.”
Loyola missed its next three 3-point attempts as Evansville sealed the game at the foul line.
“I was extremely proud of how hard our guys played,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “I thought they played their tails off the whole game defensively, to do the job and chase around Balentine, an all-league player like that. They’ve got to maintain that attitude, effort, enthusiasm. I couldn’t be happier. I’m not going into the locker room and talking about lack of effort. These kids played their tails off. There’s no question about it. It’s my job to find ways to get some wins.”
With Balentine scoring just two points in the first half and not making a single field goal, Loyola controlled most of the first half. They led 21-14 in the final three minutes.
Then Aces reserves Taylor Stafford and Christian Benzon stepped up. Stafford drilled a pair of triples, and Benzon drained a mid-range jumper before the halftime buzzer.
Suddenly, Evansville led 24-23 at the break.
“Some of their other guys stepped up,” Moser said .”They knock down three straight shots to end the first half and all of a sudden they’ve got a lead.”
The Ramblers regained control with a 42-36 lead early in the second half. The Aces erased that deficit with an 11-1 run and led the rest of the way.
With Balentine struggling, sophomore wing Blake Simmons led Evansville with 13 points, including 11 in the second half. That is Simmons’ highest total in a MVC game this year.
Junior center Egidijus Mockevicius did not have a dominant game offensively with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting. But he grabbed 13 rebounds, including six on the offensive end, and blocked six shots.
As a result of Mockevicius’ defensive presence, Loyola’s starting frontcourt of Christian Thomas and Montel James struggled. The duo combined for 19 points on 6-of-17 shooting.
“Normally those guys are 50-plus percent shooters,” Moser said. “They shot well below that.”
With star guard Milton Doyle out of the lineup, Devon Turk stepped up for Loyola. The junior guard scored a game-high 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting. With a pair of treys, Turk now sits tied for second on Loyola’s all-time 3-point shooting with 166 long balls.
Former star Blake Schilb sits in first place with 204.
“I notice that guys are flying at me, so I can use a ball fake to get to the rim,” Turk said. “I use that shooting ability as a weapon and also this summer I was practicing on off the ball stuff and handling and getting stronger.”
Turk also played an excellent defensive game, drawing two charges and recording one steal.
“My defense has improved a lot,” Turk said. “It’s mostly getting stronger and staying in the weight room. It’s also a focus, like watching film and paying attention to their tendencies and everything.”
Turk nearly carried the Ramblers to a small upset, but the rebounding margin killed them. Evansville out-rebounded Loyola 38-23.
“We’re undersized in the Valley,” junior guard Jeff White said. “But we’ve just got to be more physical and a little faster. We’re short so we’ve got to be physical, blocking out as much as we can. Everybody’s got to pursue the rebound.”
Loyola begins a two-game road swing Saturday at Indiana State.