Skyhawks Fall Gracefully in Illinois

The Illinois State Redbirds (7-3, 0-0) handed down a tough loss, 64-54, to the University of Tennessee at Martin Skyhawks (6-3, 0-0) at Redbird Arena, in Normal, Illinois on Wednesday night.

UT Martin head coach Heath Schroyer’s offense struggled with the ISU 2-3 zone defense.

“I thought that we really battled,” said Coach Shroyer. “The zone gave us problems in the first half. We figured it out at halftime and were able to make the right adjustments, but I give Illinois State a lot of credit. I think their length and depth in the post just kind of wore us out.”

While there was a spot of hope to beat the zone defense, the Skyhawks struggled to complete crisp passes, leading to many lost possessions.

At the start of the game, the Skyhawks Twymond Howard (11 pts, 8 rebounds) and Arkeem Joseph (0 pts, 1 rebound) could not convert soft touch shots from deep inside the paint.

The seven baskets earned for UT Martin in the first half all were either heavily contested layups, put backs, or outside shots (3-10) that were wide open. Those were the few successful openings created in the ball swing to beat the zone defense.

While UT Martin struggled to score, the ISU Redbirds failed to convert their own open jump shots, keeping the game close.

Eventually, the Redbirds found open shooters on ball screens that led to success from the three point range, going 3-4 in a 7 minute span.

During the final three minute stretch of the first half, UT Martin was able to find zone penetration, trading threes for layups.

The Skyhawks went to the locker room at halftime, trailing the Redbirds by a score of 28-18 on 25% shooting.
UT Martin came out strong to start the second half. They scored on a zone-penetrating contested layup, followed by a mid-range jumper from 8 feet out on the next possession.

As UT Martin continued to exploit the slow defensive zone, ISU swapped to a man-to-man defense.

“What they did after about the first ten minutes of the game is they basically put all their players between 15-18 feet of the basket,” said ISU Head Coach Dan Muller. “They packed it in on us bad. That is part of the reason our offense looked so bad during that stretch.”

Opposing teams are shooting a mind-blowing 52.1% from the field against UT Martin.

“A lot of those shots (by UT Martin) were in the paint,” said Coach Muller. “They did the same thing that they did in the first half. We just didn’t guard it as well. When we went man, we fouled about 19 times, so we had to go back to zone.”

Offensively, Coach Schroyer was pleased with the week. They solved a few riddles.

“We really tried to initially to stay basically with a typical zone attack, trying to get the ball short corner to high post,” said Coach Schroyer. “Their length really bothered us and at halftime we made an adjustment. We tried to space it with four shooters which gave us a lot better looks. We got them extended, which let our guards get in and create and play. We made that adjustment at halftime. That was the difference to give us a chance to win.”

The Skyhawks continued to keep pace with ISU, whittling down the lead to 6 points with 2:30 elapsed in the second half. The defense came alive, covering the passing lanes and cutting off the baseline for ISU.

With 15 minutes left in the half, an offensive foul by the Redbirds Tony Wills (4 pts, one rebound, assist, and steal) really seemed to give the Skyhawks the momentum needed to take control of the game.

UT Martin shot red hot from the floor in the first 12 minutes of the second half on a combined 11-15 from the floor.

The first half showed how terrible UT Martin can be at free throws (1-5). They were able to get to the line more often in the second half (6-9,) and showed as a team what they should be capable of in the future.

With 13 minutes left in the game, the Skyhawks earned the lead over the Redbirds. They continued to pour on the shooting, finishing with a 5-0 run, making the score 42-37 with just over 11 minutes to go.

Unfortunately for UT Martin, Daishon Knight took control of the game at this point for the Redbirds.

Knight (18 pts, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 turnovers, and 1 steal) thrived, drove to the lane for hard layups, converting from the free throw line, and eventually dishing the alley-oop to teammate Reggie Lynch who emphatically finished the shot, giving the momentum back to ISU.

While never regaining the dominance over the zone they showed in the early minutes of the second half, UT Martin stayed step in step with the Redbirds. They tied ISU once again with less than 5 minutes left to play, 50-50.

Once again, UT Martin had no answer for Knight. He was able to get into the paint, find himself open for three on an out of bounds play, and convert all his free throws to put the game away for the Redbirds.

To the credit of UT Martin, during that stretch they went 3-6, passing up bad looks for great shots surrounding the paint. Without this effort, they would not have stood a chance.

“Against a zone you are going to have to make some shots. We were11-13 at one stretch and we came down and took a couple tough shots that we really didn’t need. I am really proud of the fact that we came back and with two minutes left we had a chance to win.” said Heath Schroyer.

ISU closed out the game on the back of Reggie Lynch (12 pts, 8 rebounds, 1 turnover, and 2 blocks) who finished the game 6-6 from the free throw line.

UT Martin tried to recover, but missteps lead to an offensive rebound for ISU, and a missed three on the next possession.

UT Martin showed all facets of their game, the good and the bad all on the court.

“We have a gutsy group. This group believes in ourselves and that we can win games. This isn’t the old UT Martin.” said Schroyer.

In his view the minds of his players are in the right place.

“I really like where we are,” said Coach Shroyer. “Every time I’ve walked in the locker room (after a loss), they’ve been really disappointed. That is a really good sign for us. We are starting to develop the culture that we need to be competitive. That is a really good sign. They are mad that they lost. We take a lot from that.”

With a whole new coaching staff and a new UT Martin attitude, it is safe to say that they will not lose another game like this anytime soon.

The Illinois State Redbirds (6-3, 0-0) take on another OVC team in the Murray State University Racers (6-4, 0-0) at the CFSB Center in Murray, Kentucky on December 20th @ 3 PM CST.

The University of Tennessee at Martin Skyhawks (6-3, 0-0) take on the Presbyterian College Blue Hose (4-7, 0-0) at Skyhawk Arena in Martin, Tennessee on December 20th @ 3 PM CST.

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