ST. LOUIS — Before Saturday it was assumed that two teams from the Missouri Valley Conference would receive NCAA tournament bids.
Now there may be three.
Tyler Brown swished a pair of free throws with 6.4 seconds remaining to catapult Illinois State to a 65-64 victory over 14th-ranked Wichita State — the regular-season league champion — in the semifinals of the MVC tournament at the Scottrade Center.
The Redbirds can earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament by defeating the winner of Evansville-Creighton in Sunday’s championship. Even if Creighton doesn’t win, the Bluejays are expected to receive an at-large berth along with Wichita State.
“Most of the people watching the game probably turned off their TVs when we were down by 10,” Brown said. “But we’re not that kind of team.”
Illinois actually trailed by 13 points late in the first half before shaving the deficit to eight, 36-28, at intermission.
A free throw by Wichita State’s Toure Murry gave the Shockers a 64-63 advantage with 2 minutes, 51 seconds remaining. Neither team scored again until Brown’s free throw with 6.4 seconds left.
“I blocked out everything,” Brown said. “It was just me and the rim.”
Wichita State still had two more chances to win, but a 17-foot jumper from Murry and a 10-footer by Garrett Stutz were both off line. Illinois State players and fans went wild as the final horn sounded.
The win snapped Illinois State’s string of 24 straight losses against ranked teams, a streak that dated back to 1987.
The Redbirds — who don’t feature a single senior in their rotation — haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1998. They went 9-9 in the MVC this season and are 20-12 overall.
“This was one of the toughest, hardest-fought performances by any team I’ve ever been around,” fifth-year Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said.
Illinois State won Saturday despite shooting just 33.9 percent from the field and getting outrebounded 40-34. Jankovich credited his team’s defense for the victory. The Redbirds held Wichita State to 34.9 percent shooting.
“I never ever would’ve thought we would’ve shot 33 percent and beat this team,” said Jankovich, whose team lost to the Shockers twice this season. “I don’t care how you slice it ... that was grit and toughness and all the things that are dear to a coach.”
Illinois State will have to step up its game even more if it hopes to win on Sunday, especially if the Redbirds face Creighton. They lost their two regular-season meetings with Creighton by an average of 18.5 points. They’ll certainly enter the contest with plenty of momentum.
“I’ve never felt something like this before,” Brown said. “Even though we have another game to win, I’ve never been a part of something this big. This game meant so much to so many people.”
Including the Shockers.
Most bracketologists had pegged Wichita State as a No. 4 or a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. Now it could experience a significant drop.
Shockers coach Greg Marshall scoffed when asked how he planned to “fix” his team’s problems before its next game.
“I don’t think we’re going to do much fixing,” Marshall said. “We’re 27-5 going [into] the NCAA tournament. I’m looking forward to [playing on a] neutral floor. I feel like we’ll have just as good of a shot, if not better, than we had today.”
Granted, Saturday’s game was on a “neutral floor,” too. But it was obvious Marshall wasn’t happy with a handful of calls that went against his team. Marshall said the Shockers “didn’t play well enough to overcome everything we needed to overcome.”
“I saw some strange things out there today,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to win when you see some strange things like I saw today.”
“We’ve got to learn from this loss,” Stutz said. “Every other loss, we’ve learned from and recovered well.”
Wichita State had won nine in a row before Saturday.
“How can you learn from a loss?” Marshall said. “Well, you let it sit in the pit of your stomach until it makes you violently ill. Then you expel that feeling and then you go back to work. That’s all you can do.”