Another title bout: Sycamores secure first title game appearance since '14 after early barrage

Mar. 9—The last time Indiana State appeared in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game was March 9, 2014.

That year, the second-seeded Sycamores fell 83-69 to No. 1 Wichita State in St. Louis. Roughly 635 miles away, current ISU coach Josh Schertz was polishing off his second of five South Atlantic Conference championships (NCAA Division II).

On Saturday, he guided ISU to the brink of its first NCAA tournament spot in a baker's dozen years with a 94-72 win over Northern Iowa inside Enterprise Center.

"We have great respect for the history and tradition of Indiana State," Schertz said. "But this group is really set out to write its own history — its own course. And trying to stand on its own two feet. We came here to try to win a championship. It's incredibly difficult at this event — this conference tournament."

Sunday's game for the league's NCAA auto-bid isn't this group's first showcase rodeo.

"Like I told [my team], 'We've been playing high-stakes games the last two weeks,'" Schertz said. "'When you are playing for a conference regular-season championship, you gotta win four games in two weeks, which we did.' I thought our guys handled that beautifully. And then coming here, it's just a continuation of that. You want to be playing your best now. I think [two straight losses late in the season] reset us, helped us refocus. But I hope that we could have continued to learn while we win, which is the next step, maybe, in our evolution."

Indiana State somewhat avenged its last-second semifinal loss the previous year to Bradley.

"We [have] a couple of guys on the team that returned from last year that kind of had that sour taste in our mouth from losing [by] one point, [off a] rebound. We kind of used that as an extra edge to this point. Just being able to get over that hump, being able to have an opportunity for the championship is always a great opportunity. We are just excited to be able to play on Sunday and hopefully get it done."

To move to 28-5 this season, leapfrogging the 1947-48 and 1949-50 squads for second most victories in program history.

That 1947-48 squad was under the tutelage of arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time, John Wooden, whose Sycamores went 27-7.


Three years ago, sophomore Robbie Avila spurned UNI in favor of ISU and the results have been convincing in Terre Haute.

He's helped the team win 51 games in the past two seasons combined. And in Saturday's MVC semifinals, he torched the Panthers (19-14) from the jump.

Northern Iowa big man Jacob Hutson found the bottom of the net first from the top of the key, prompting the Valley's all-time winningest regular-season coach Ben Jacobson to throw up a pair of "3" signals at midcourt.

But Avila had the answer.

Two and a half minutes into the game, Avila buried two triples from the top of the arc. On the second one, sophomore Ryan Conwell — mere feet away — serenaded him with a gun signal.

Avila couldn't miss. He hit two more, merely with 4 1/2 minutes elapsed, for a 17-8 lead.

Junior Julian Larry opened the game with a layin and then dished out assists on four of the next five field goals.

Avila had another open look on the left wing that seemed destined to drop but didn't.

The Sycamores' optimal start ensued as junior Isaiah Swope drilled a right-corner 3 for his third straight make from the start.

ISU went up 24-12 as Swope snuck around a defender on an outlet pass in the backcourt for a steal and Conwell finished down the lane as the middle of it parted for him.

The Panthers proceeded to hit two 3s after a Conwell turnover at midcourt as he was surrounded by a sea of purple. It ignited an 8-0 spurt for Northern Iowa to cut a 19-point deficit to 11 with 7:04 left in the opening half.

Schertz had a quick trigger on the timeout for a reset that stunted the UNI momentum.

In the closing half, Northern Iowa pivoted and challenged Avila to beat them down low and he did.

Early in the final 20 minutes, Swope and Conwell provided lobs over the top of the fronting defender to Avila for simple layups on the left side. Avila finished with 21 points and 5-of-6 shooting from deep.

Conwell was a steady contributor across the board with 20 points for a second straight game in the tourney.

"He's just unbelievable, man," Schertz said. "He just kind of flies [around], 13 rebounds, 20 points, it's every night. He's just so skilled. He's so tough. He's so smart. He's such a great kid. He's a dream to coach — his physical toughness on the glass. He's getting rebounds, getting hit in the face."

The two-way performer added four assists. He had 20 points in the tourney opener and is playing with sterling ability.

"I think it's very important for me to be in the zone for my teammates," Conwell said. "I know they need me, but on the other end I need them."

Larry had 17 points and seven assists.

Jacobson, who became the regular-season Valley wins king this year, sits at 20-13 in the tourney, one shy of moving into a tie with former Creighton coach Dana Altman (now at Oregon) for wins in the Valley tourney at 21.

UNI juniors Tytan Anderson and Bowen Born were held to 4-of-15 shooting from the field to make it a comfortable ISU win.

The 34th straight "Arch Madness" championship game is set for 2:10 p.m. EST Sunday in St. Louis against the winner of No. 2 Drake vs. No. 3 Bradley later Saturday. Sunday's action will be televised live on CBS.

"If it's Drake, they are going to do what they do," Schertz said. "Bradley will play a little bit of zone. I think the key is you don't prepare the night before, you start preparing in June for basically teaching guys what the answers are to the questions.

"The defense asks you questions, you got to understand ... we talked a lot these guys get tired of me saying it, but the key to being a good offensive player is understanding how you are being guarded and how your teammates are being guarded."

With Conwell and Avila playing as good as they have all season with Blue and White, they are dispatching squads like the heralded squad coming into this MVC field.

"I loved him as a kid, I love him as a player," Schertz said of Conwell, whom he recruited out of Pike High and in the transfer portal the past two years. "I told him, 'You are not going to find a head coach that believes in you and what you can be more than me. It will be impossible to find that coach that believes in you more than I do and what you can be as a player.'"

The Sycamores have a shot at their first MVC tourney title in less than 24 hours.

"To be able to be a team that pushed the program higher and higher again is awesome," Avila said. "There's a great group of guys that is as good as any. They all deserve the credit they are getting."