ST. LOUIS — Illinois State had led by as many as eight points in the second half of Friday’s MVC Tournament quarterfinal matchup with Evansville. But the Redbirds were leading by a slim margin, 63-62, entering the final three minutes.
Freshman Deontae Hawkins caught a pass wide-open on the right wing. Relative to the fast speed of a basketball game, Hawkins had an eternity.
“Get the ball right,” Hawkins said. “Make sure the ball is perfect in my hands and be confident in shooting.”
He was confident as ever, and the shot, his fourth made 3-pointer of the outing, swished through to bump the Redbirds’ lead back to two possessions at a key juncture.
After two Evansville free throws, Hawkins caught a pass on the right block, smothered by two Aces defenders. The freshman took a hit but still managed to get his shot on the rim. He watched the ball drop in for an and-one.
Although a few Illinois State turnovers allowed Evansville to remain close into the final seconds, Hawkins quick six points gave the Redbirds the boost they needed to advance to Saturday’s semifinal against No. 1 seed Wichita State.
Truth is, all afternoon long the 6-foot-8 forward was flashing signs of a future big-time player.
Hawkins finished with a team-high 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. He also had 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
“I was feeling it in the layup line,” he said after the game. “I felt that my shot was good, and I just kept shooting. … I knew I had to make some big plays for my teammates. They’re counting on me, just like I’m counting on them.”
Hawkins had an up and down freshman season. He should really be a sophomore but had to sit out last season after the NCAA ruled him a non-qualifier.
This season, Hawkins missed 10 games with a foot injury and was inconsistent when he returned. But watching the way he carried himself Friday, even playing in a conference tournament game for the first time, one would think he’s been scoring 17 points every night.
“He’s got a confidence about him,” coach Dan Muller said. “He may play good. He may play bad. But it’s never because of where you’re playing, whether it’s on the road. That stuff doesn’t bother him. For his first time around [at Arch Madness], that’s unique. He’s not scared of the moment.”
The moment gets even bigger Saturday, as Illinois State tries to upset top-seeded Wichita State for a trip to the championship game.