DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)—Adam Emmenecker found himself in an unusual spot at the end of Drake’s latest victory.
For once, he got to sit on the bench and enjoy the finish.
Emmenecker contributed nine assists and Jonathan Cox scored 10 of his season-high 21 points during a decisive second-half run that carried No. 15 Drake to its 21st straight victory, 73-65 over Evansville on Saturday.
“It was good to be able to sit out those last 40 seconds,” Emmenecker said. “Our bench guys stepped in and played some solid minutes for us tonight. That really helped at the end of the game.”
It was a rare comfortable victory for the Bulldogs (22-1, 13-0 Missouri Valley), who’ve had to sweat out several close calls.
They had trailed at some point in the second half in each of their last eight games. In this one, though, Drake led all the way.
“It’s nice to have a game like that, where you don’t have to worry so much at the end,” Cox said. “We did a good job staying together at the end and playing good defense. It’s a lot more fun to win like that than like we’ve won the past couple of games—a lot less stressful.”
Leonard Houston added 15 points and Josh Young 13 for Drake, which has a four-game lead in the league race with five to play and needs only one more victory to clinch at least a share of its first championship in 37 years.
The Bulldogs held Evansville (7-16, 2-11) to one basket in the first 9 1/2 minutes while building a 16-2 lead, then used a 15-2 run to take control for good after Evansville had pulled to within five early in the second half.
Evansville had lost its last two road games by margins of 20 and 30 points. But Drake coach Keno Davis said he was perfectly happy with an eight-point win.
“Even though some people would look at that and say, ‘Oh, I thought we’d beat them by more,’ I’m extremely impressed with our team to be able to gut out a win like they did tonight,” Davis said. “I didn’t expect it to be any greater margin than it was.”
Evansville missed six of its first seven shots and had five turnovers before making its second basket. The Purple Aces eventually regrouped and made a run at Drake but couldn’t answer the Bulldogs’ 3-minute spree midway through the second half.
Shy Ely led Evansville with 18 points and Jay Cousinard scored 11.
“Their pressure got to us a couple of times,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “They’ve got a great environment here. It was a combination of them picking up their intensity a little bit and us not executing in this environment like we have to.”
Drake hasn’t earned a share of the Valley title since tying Louisville and St. Louis for first in 1971. The school’s last outright championship came in 1970.
The Bulldogs’ winning streak remains the nation’s second-longest behind No. 1 Memphis (23-0).
“We’ve got to understand that we’ve got to enjoy every victory we get,” Davis said. “Whether it’s at Illinois State or it’s at home against Evansville, there’s not much difference in those teams. For us to come out with a victory, we’re very happy.”
The game’s start was delayed for about 5 minutes because the arena lights that had been doused while Drake’s starters were introduced and didn’t come back on immediately.
More than 7 minutes had elapsed in the game before the lights were at full strength. By then, Drake was leading 14-2.
A little more than a minute later, Klayton Korver fed Cox for a dunk to make it 16-2 and the Bulldogs seemed on their way to a rout. But after Pieter van Tongeren scored inside to end Evansville’s 8-minute drought, the Purple Aces finally got some offense going.
They got to within eight, fell behind by 14, then finished the half with a 7-2 run to trail 33-24. Even then, Evansville wasn’t finished.
The Purple Aces made five of their first six shots in the second half, three times cutting the lead to five and pulling to 44-38 on Ely’s jumper with 14:45 to play. It would never be that close again.
Cox scored in the lane to start the Bulldogs’ big run. Emmenecker then stole the inbounds pass and fed Cox at the top of the key for a 3-pointer that made it 49-38.
Another Cox bucket inside and Korver’s long 3-pointer increased the lead to 54-40, and Cox finished the run by burying a 3 from the left wing with Evansville’s Victor Gomez in his face, making it 59-40.
Cox shot 8-for-11 and grabbed six rebounds. His previous season high of 19 came in a 71-68 victory at Evansville on Jan. 6.
“He’s beat us both times,” Simmons said. “On a couple of those shots he hit, we had guys draped all over him.”
Evansville got to with eight down the stretch, but Drake made enough free throws to stay safely ahead.