The official UE news release for Saturday’s 86-72 win over Eastern Kentucky labeled it a “historic” victory for the Aces.
That’s hard to argue.
For the first time since 1999, UE has 20 wins. And for the first time since 1971, when the Aces won their fifth and final College Division championship, the program has back-to-back postseason victories.
(With a 12:30 p.m. tip, UE opened second-round CIT play. The Aces will find out a third-round opponent — the round of eight — later this weekend.)
“I think when the season’s over, we’ll be able to reflect upon things like that,” said coach Marty Simmons. “Right now, we feel fortunate to keep playing. That’s kind of fun. I think our players are learning. The last two games, we’ve really gotten good effort from our bench. I thought (D.J.) Balentine and (Ryan) Sawvell and (Lewis) Jones really gave us great play from the bench, and when you’re playing against good teams in the postseason, you’ve got to have multiple guys who do well. The last two games, we’ve had that.”
Added senior Colt Ryan, who scored 25 points to pull with eight of tying Larry Humes for the Aces’ career scoring lead: “It feels great. We want to keep winning her in the CIT because we’re doing things that haven’t been done here in Evansville for a long time. We hope this will jump start it and keep the program going. That’s really what we’re looking to do.”
Ryan left the game with 22 points and 2:05 to go. “I had kind of asked the coaches, ‘Am I done?’” Ryan said. “We were up 16 at the time. They said if they keep making shots and stuff – we were running offense/defense because I had four fouls – so I came back in.”
The Aces out-rebounded the winningest EKU team ever 41-20. “Before the game, I just had a talk with the players,” said senior Troy Taylor, who scored a career-high 16 points. “Especially the big guys. I was just like, ‘From here on out, don’t let anybody out-tough you. Don’t let anybody out-rebound you. Don’t back down from nobody, just because of the simple fact that when the ball goes up in the air, it’s all about who wants it…The position I was in today – I was guarding one of their best shooters, so I wasn’t in a position to rebound. I was telling D.J. that he had to stick his nose in there. He got a couple huge ones as well.”
The game, of course, was played at the Physical Activities Center at the University of Southern Indiana. The Aces beat Hofstra there in a 2011 College Basketball Invitational game. “I think they really enjoyed playing in this atmosphere,” Simmons said. “Thanks to everyone at USI for giving us this opportunity. We got to play in front of our fans – our families. It was electric when we came out here for the warm-ups. I think our seniors remembered that from the Hofstra game a few years ago, and I think they were really excited about that.”
Added Taylor: “It was fun. The crowd was energized. I know it was kind of difficult for them to wake up a little earlier than normal, but it was just a loud atmosphere with how enclosed and tight it is in here. They were on it. They were excited – just as excited as us. And then when we had slumps, they got us back in it.”
EKU hit its first five shots while jumping out to an 11 points lead. UE erased that and led by eight points itself before a 43-43 halftime tie. “I just thought we executed better in the second half defensively,” Simmons said. “The first half, we just kind of played. We didn’t have a lot of execution defensively. They missed some shots in the second half they made in the first half, but I thought we played with a lot of energy – played with a lot of effort. We made mistakes out there, but when you’re playing with effort and energy, sometimes things take care of themselves.”
Freshman Adam Wing left with an apparent knee or foot injury with 16 minutes to play and didn’t return. “Nobody said a word to me (about Wing’s status),” Simmons said. “He was available to go back in there at the end. We just chose not to.”