ST. LOUIS — Illinois State had two chances to beat nationally ranked Wichita State in the regular season, but both times the Redbirds fell short.
In Wichita, the Redbirds hung close, trailing 57-55 with 3:53 remaining but lost by 8 points. In Normal, Illinois State again trailed by 2 points, this time in the final three minutes. They lost 68-62.
The Redbirds found redemption Saturday at the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals, which is when it mattered most, with a 65-62 victory. This time when they trailed by two points at 58-56 in the final three minutes, they did not let an opportunity go to waste.
“We wanted to beat them those two other times,” sophomore forward Reggie Lynch said. “We knew that whoever was in our way in the tournament — and it happened to be Wichita — was going to have to get beat by us, and we stepped up to the plate.”
Senior Daishon Knight in particular stepped up in a crucial moment with the Redbirds trailing late. The 6-foot-1 guard sized up a contested 3-pointer and nailed it, his third triple of the game, with 2:20 left to give Illinois State (21-11, 11-7 MVC) a 59-58 edge.
“It was a tough shot,” Knight said. “For some reason, whenever I’m over there in that corner with Justin McCloud, I feel like I’ve got all the confidence in the world to shoot the ball.”
The Redbirds took a 5-point lead in the final minute, but the top-seeded Shockers (28-4, 17-1) cut it back to 63-62 in the final seconds.
Knight calmly toed the foul line and made two shots, finishing off his 25-point day. Fred VanVleet‘s 3-pointer on the other end was off the mark, and Illinois State celebrated with a trip to Sunday’s championship game in hand.
“If you’re going to beat a team like a Wichita State, you’re going to have to have somebody have a special day,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said, “and Daishon Knight had that.”
Knight who has never played in the NCAA Tournament — Illinois State has not gone dancing since 1998 — but he kept the dream of earning a bid alive with his performance Saturday.
“We always just talk about how it’s our last chance playing with this group of people,” said Knight, who shot 10-of-15 from the field. “We kind of take that like personal amongst ourselves. We kind of go out there and fight with each other. That helps us out. That helps motivate us.”
Knight had torched the Shockers for 24 points in the first meeting in January, but in the more recent one three weeks ago he was shut out. Although he had 7 assists, the Baltimore native had a goose egg with 0-of-8 shooting.
“I put that game way, way, way back,” Knight said. “I didn’t even think about that game. I just wanted to go out and compete as hard as I can with my brothers.”
Knight came out with a vengeance Saturday. He posted 9 points in the first half, but the fourth-seeded Redbirds trailed 30-22 at the break. In the second half, he turned his production to a new level.
Knight didn’t score his first basket of the half for three minutes, but then he posted 7 straight points as Illinois State tied the game 36-36.
Several other players, like Reggie Lynch (10 points, 8 rebonds), freshman MiKyle McIntosh (9 points) and senior John Jones (8 points) stepped up, but Knight was the consistent force as the Redbirds took control in the second period.
Redbirds are now one game away from breaking that NCAA Tournament drought. They face No. 2 seed Northern Iowa, who is also ranked No. 11 nationally, Sunday in the Arch Madness finals.