Stories from last night’s 63-60 loss at Xavier:
–That was the best first half of road basketball Evansville has played all season. The Aces shot 50 percent from the floor, forced eight turnovers, and outrebounded the Musketeers, 17-10, all en route to a 32-25 halftime lead. Another reason it was great team basketball: even without D.J. Balentine, UE’s offense was still clicking. Balentine had just two points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, but plenty of other players stepped up in his absence. Egidijus Mockevicius had a great first half with nine points and played aggressively with much success, and Blake Simmons played well with seven points and four rebounds.
–What was most impressive about the first half, though, was probably the defense, which UE has struggled ith all year. Xavier was held to just 33 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent from beyond the arc, and the Aces’ trap gave the Musketeers trouble when they tried to pass into the paint. Mockevicius and Jaylon Moore did a good job preventing Matt Stainbrook from getting easy layups, and the team limited Xavier’s transition game, just like head coach Marty Simmons said would be an emphasis in practice. That probably was the best defensive effort all season, as well.
–As good as the Aces’ free throw shooting has been all season, UE struggled down the stretch, going 2-for-8 in the second half. It’s not the only reason the Aces lost the game, but it certainly contributed to it. Especially in close contests, the better free throw-shooting team is typically going to win games.
–Same goes for fouling. In the past three games, Mockevicius was able to play the majority of the first half, as he didn’t pick up early fouls, as was the case Tuesday night. But both he and Duane Gibson picked up early third and fourth fouls, forcing Simmons to sit them for a bit of the second half. Not that Jaylon Brown, Christian Benzon, or Moore were poor as replacements, but it’s noticeable when 40 percent of the starting lineup isn’t on the floor.
–You could tell Balentine wants to be the go-to guy in late-game situations if he hasn’t already proved that. The sophomore went 5-for-10 in the second half and hit two of his four 3-pointers, and he was the one with the ball in his hands as the shot clock wound down and when UE needed a basket to keep with Xavier in the final minutes. That doesn’t come without both good and bad moments — Balentine missed two free throws with a minute left, and missed a layup and the final shot to tie it. His moment will come, it just wasn’t last night.