CONWAY, S.C. — Illinois State coach Dan Muller decided to switch things up defensively and told his Redbirds to keep attacking off the dribble through contact — even if there were no fouls called — against a physical power-conference opponent.
Turns out, it was the perfect plan to beat South Carolina in the relocated Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Milik Yarbrough had 18 points in an all-around performance to help the Redbirds beat the Gamecocks 69-65 in Thursday’s tournament opener, earning a big win for a Missouri Valley Conference program that lost four starters from a 28-win team last year.
“Now you have to handle it the right way,” Muller said. “New groups need confidence. New groups like this need to understand if they do what we ask them to do, you can be successful.”
The Redbirds (1-1) frustrated the cold-shooting Gamecocks with an active zone defense that they barely ran during a high-scoring season-opening loss to Florida Gulf Coast. Muller said his team was so bad defensively that he probably should’ve used it more.
“We weren’t really worried about anything they were doing (to attack the zone),” said Keyshawn Evans, who scored 17 points. “We know if they’re setting ballscreens, we’re getting over ballscreens regardless of what they’re going to do. We’re not going to let them drive, we’re going to move when they kick it.”
Illinois State led by as many as 12 points before halftime and saw the Gamecocks rally to twice tie it after halftime before holding on down the stretch. Evans hit a free throw with 4 seconds left to make it a two-possession game and seal the win.
Hassani Gravett had 10 points, nine rebounds and five assists for the Gamecocks (2-1), who shot just 30 percent.
“They came at us and our defense was back,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said, “and when you’re in a halfcourt game and your defense is back, that’s not good.”
The tournament was set for the coastal city of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, but damage from Hurricane Maria forced it to Coastal Carolina in Conway.
Illinois State: The Redbirds responded to the Florida Gulf Coast loss with a tough performance. Yarbrough, who sat out last year as a transfer from Saint Louis, was a particularly frustrating matchup for South Carolina with his ability to attack off the dribble to go with six rebounds and six assists.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks returned just a quarter of their scoring from last year’s surprise Final Four team, so Martin knew it would take some time for this group to reshape its offense. But South Carolina never effectively attacked the zone and missed the open looks the Gamecocks did have, including going just 9 of 32 (28 percent) from behind the arc.
“We never got inside the zone,” Martin said. “And when we threw to within 5 feet, our bigs couldn’t score.”
Evans said the Redbirds were ready to “drive through contact.” It got them to the line 39 times in a whistle-heavy game, 17 coming from Yarbrough.
“I was kind of surprised about the amount of fouls that were getting called,” Yarbrough said. “Because we were told they were not going to call a lot of fouls and they’re going to be fouling you a lot. So we just came here with the mindset of keep playing hard and keep getting through the defense, because they’re not going to call any fouls.”
Yarbrough and Phil Fayne (14 points, 10 rebounds) didn’t start for Illinois State because they were late for a team breakfast Wednesday.
Illinois State: The Redbirds will play Boise State, which beat UTEP on a late 3-point play, in Friday’s winner’s bracket.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks will play UTEP in Friday’s consolation bracket.
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