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Andy Amey: Last Hulman Center game of the year was a great one

Mar. 27—There was going to be some sadness Tuesday night, simply because it was the last college basketball game this winter in Hulman Center.

But the 8,057 fans in attendance at least got to enjoy one more Indiana State victory — 85-81 over Cincinnati — and will have a chance to make a 75-mile trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse next week for the National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

"I hope we get all 8,000 of them over there," ISU coach Josh Schertz said after the game.

The Hulman Center finale capped a week of the Sycamores being poor hosts to the AAC (SMU), the Big Ten (Minnesota) and the Big 12. And it probably ruined any chance for ISU (or the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference) to upgrade its schedule.

Will the Mustangs, or the Golden Gophers, or the Bearcats be calling Schertz or Angie Lansing wanting to schedule the Sycamores in the future?

"This is one of the best environments in college basketball, and it's a hard place to play," Schertz said. "It doesn't make sense for [the Power 6 schools] to play these games [at Hulman Center or other Missouri Valley Conference venues]."

There's a theory, in fact, that the Sycamores have boosted the prestige of another tournament. Tuesday night was the 45th anniversary of the national championship Bird-Magic matchup in Salt Lake City, still the gold standard for percentage of TV screens watching it, and this year's NCAA tournament hasn't had any more drama than the NIT has produced.

"It's great to be able to play at this time of year," ISU's Robbie Avila said after the game, "and to win at this time of year is huge."

Tuesday's game was the toughest of the three NIT games the Sycamores have played. The come-from-behind win over SMU was the result of a sensational second half offensively and defensively, a switch to a zone defense slowing the Mustangs' offense just enough. The win over Minnesota was a typical ISU victory, a big surge early that the Gophers couldn't overcome.

But Cincinnati was different. The Bearcats led most of the first 33 minutes while the Sycamores struggled offensively. Maybe the height and length of the Bearcats was a factor early as ISU missed some easy shots.

Cincinnati had a 50-42 lead, but then came hints that the Sycamore offense was back. A 3-pointer by Isaiah Swope was followed by a basket by Avila that brought ISU within three, and back-to-back 3-pointers by Ryan Conwell and Jayson Kent tied the score at 56. A 3-pointer by Avila put ISU ahead 59-58 for the first time since 13-11 and the lead changed hands several times.

Then, suddenly, the ISU offense was back.

A fast-break dunk by Kent put ISU ahead 66-65 and started a 10-0 ISU run. Swope's defense on freshman point guard Jizzle James was disrupting the Bearcats, Julian Larry scored three points off two fast breaks and Xavier Bledson buried a 3-pointer. Ryan Conwell hit a pair of free throws caused by a technical foul on the Cincinnati bench and it was 74-65.

What's it feel like when everything clicks like that, players were asked.

"We're just playing together even more," Kent said, "feeding off each other's energy."

"We just keep our calm and continue play after play," added Avila.

To their credit, the Bearcats didn't fold after the ISU run. They tied the score at 77-77 with 2:54 left on a 3-pointer by Simas Lukosius but, after almost two minutes of no offense, Avila hit a tie-breaking 3-pointer just as "One minute" was being announced over the public address system. Two free throws by Kent, one by Swope and two clinchers by Bledson closed it out.

The Sycamores had scored 53 second-half points against a team ranked 18th in the nation in defensive efficiency.

"I could not be more proud of these guys," Schertz said. "Cincinnati is a great team, one of the best defensive teams in the country ... the way [the Sycamores] shared the ball, the effort they gave on the boards ... we got extraordinary effort.

"How much they care. That's a super-power," the coach said moments later. "They have the ability to enjoy each other's successes ... and they're not just capable passers but willing passers [18 assists on 26 baskets, Avila leading with six]."

Semifinals at Hinkle Fieldhouse are next Tuesday, with the championship game at 7 p.m. April 4.

—Sycamore fans in the house — Among the ISU fans in attendance were former players from the pre-Hulman Center era all the way through the Greg Lansing years.

—Bearcat fan in the house — Jizzle James is the younger son of former Indianapolis Colts all-pro running back Edgerrin James, who attended Tuesday night's game, and he looks a lot like his father. More than one observer predicted an all-Big 12 future for the freshman, possibly as soon as next season.

Andy Amey can be reached after 4 p.m. at 812-231-4277 or 812-231-4276; by email at andy.amey@tribstar.com; or by mail at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN, 47808. Follow TribStarAndy on the X.