Mark Bennett: ISU's great season ends one basket shy of a title, and future hanging in balance

Apr. 4—The Sycamores reached into their bag of heroics for just one more in this incredible 2023-24 college basketball season.

They couldn't grasp it.

With 8 seconds to play and a National Invitation Tournament championship on the line, sharpshooting Indiana State couldn't get the ball to drop into the basket, just one more time.

ISU tried four unsuccessful shots on a final play, trailing by a basket. Isaiah Swope, playing with loose cartilage and a torn meniscus, had led a second-half rally and launched a 3-pointer. Seton Hall blocked it. Swope grabbed it, shot again, missed, guard Ryan Conwell got the rebound shot and missed. Then Jayson Kent rebounded the miss and tossed up one more, but it missed too.

ISU lost 79-77 to Seton Hall in the National Invitation Tournament finals on Thursday night in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

The Sycamores finished their season with a 32-7 record, the second-best in ISU history to the Bird-led 1979 NCAA finalist team.

The Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champs were the last mid-major team left playing in the postseason. Seton Hall, a Big East program, took its second title NIT and ended up 25-12.

The choreographer of ISU's season, coach Josh Schertz, fought back emotion as he praised Seton Hall's winning performance and lauded his Sycamores.

"Our guys, as they have all year, fought with everything they had. Gave it everything they had," Schertz said. "Obviously, [it's a] heartbroken locker room."

His team showed all the right stuff to get that 33rd win. The Sycamores outshot the Pirates 52% to 42%, outrebounded Seton Hall 35-31 and hit 12 3-pointers to the Pirates' six. Four Sycamores scored in double-figures, led by Swope with 19 points, guard Julian Larry with 18 points and forwards and Robbie Avila with 13 each. The usually high-scoring Conwell was held to a lone 3-point basket for three points, but also contributed a team-high 12 rebounds.

But Seton Hall got to the free throw line nine more times than ISU, hitting 17 of 19. Pirates standouts Al-Amir Dawes and Kadary Richmond scored 24 and 21 points, respectively. And, they turned the ball over just eight times, compared to ISU's 15 errors.

Still, it could've gone the Sycamores way, if any of those last four shots fell in.

"We got four pretty good looks," Schertz said. "They didn't go in."

Every positive force available to the Sycamores was present. Their fan base, once again, filled most of Hinkle's seats, and they came with energy and loud voices, even after cheering through Tuesday's 100-90 ISU win over Utah in Hinkle in the NIT semifinal. It looked like Terre Haute must've packed up and moved to Indy for the week. Former Sycamore players showed up. Schertz deployed eight players in the heat of the action, rather than just his regular top six.

ISU needed every advantage.

Seton Hall played physical at both ends, and particularly around the basket. Midway through the first half, Schertz sent in his defensive end — actually 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman forward Derek Vorst — to give 6-10 sophomore big man Avila a breather from the ruggedness. Vorst gave the Pirates a dose of roughness, snatching a rebound, blocking a shot and inspiring a bruising element in ISU's approach.

Still, Seton Hall's aggressive style put the Sycamores in an 11-point hole, as they trailed 38-29 with 3 minutes, 30 seconds left in the first half. After leading 19-16 with 11:39 to go in the first half, ISU looked unraveled just eight minutes later. Seton Hall's defense tried to limit Avila, the Sycamores' season scoring leader, and Conwell, who combined with Avila for 53 points in Tuesday's semifinal win.

The Sycamores snapped out of that funk quickly. Just as the Pirates quieted, slightly, the heavily pro-ISU crowd, Larry brought his team and their audience to full attention. The Sycamores finished the first half on a blistering 11-0 run, featuring two Larry 3-pointers and his high lofted pass inside to Avila for a layup, and then capped by a Larry drive to the game-tying layup off a long-distance assist from Xavier Bledson.

Tough defense completed the comeback. Seton Hall's Richmond shot a jumper under heavy Sycamore pressure, missed and Conwell clutched the rebound as the buzzer sounded. It was 39-39 at halftime, and the crowd roared approval.

Larry had 13 points at the break, three more than his season per-game average of 10.8. That helped offset Conwell being held scoreless. The rally he led and the halftime tie it produced had statistical significance. Seton Hall is 21-1 this season when leading at halftime.

The Pirates came out of the locker room motivated, exploding for a 12-3 run to start the second half. Schertz called timeout, trailing 51-42 with 16:45 left in the game, and the season.

Swope's hot second half lifted the Sycamores over Utah on Tuesday, and he summoned some of that touch in Thursday's second half. He drove to three layups, the third coming on a Seton Hall goaltending call, followed by an Avila 3-pointer fed by a Conwell assist. Then Swope hit a jumper to tie it at 53-53 with 13:05 to go.

Neither team was quitting.

Seton Hall resumed its lead, but the Sycamores kept coming back and finally took their first lead since early in the first half at 63-62 with 8:42 on the clock. It came after a three-point play by Bledson, who hit a shot while falling to the floor and then a free throw, followed by Bledson hurling a cross-court pass over his shoulder to Larry for a 3-pointer in the corner.

A final surge gave ISU its biggest lead of the night at 77-70 with 3:03 to play. A basket by Kent, Conwell's 3-pointer and another by Swope made it happen.

But the Sycamores didn't score again. Seton Hall finished on a 9-0 run, and won.

Swope, who transferred from Southern Indiana to ISU before this season, scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half. In the offseason, he'll need surgery on his leg. "This dude put off surgery to be there for his team, and ... that's all you know about him," Schertz said.

"An absolute warrior, a great competitor and an incredible human being," Schertz added.

It's truly been a great season for ISU and its fans. The NIT opportunity came after the Sycamores got passed over by the NCAA Tournament. They made the most of that chance, as did Seton Hall, also among the four teams bypassed by the Big Dance.

"To be great at anything, you have to be willing to have your heart broken," Schertz said. "And our hearts are obviously broken."

As it ends, Sycamore fans turn their attention toward next season. And they're wondering if Schertz will be back, given the interest in him shown by bigger programs, such as Saint Louis University. He said Thursday that he'll announce his decision by Saturday. Also, fans wonder if Sycamore players might follow Schertz elsewhere via the NCAA transfer portal.

"It's been a great run, and I don't want to leave anybody twisting in the wind any more than they have been," Schertz said. "So I'll get to that, but tonight is not the time and that's why I didn't want to do it in the season because it's too emotional. There's too many things pulling at you. I [will] have a chance to decompress, turn my phone off and sit down and think about what's best for me, and certainly these guys will all have decisions to make as well."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or