St. Louis, MO (SportsNetwork.com) - The semifinal round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament kicks off Saturday with a matchup pitting the fourth- seeded Illinois State Redbirds against the eighth-ranked and top-seeded Wichita State Shockers at the Scottrade Center.
The winner of this clash moves on to the MVC Championship Game Sunday to face either Indiana State or Northern Iowa.
Illinois State won't make it easy for the top-seeded Shockers. The Redbirds take a five-game win streak into Saturday's semifinal round contest after Illinois State made a second-half comeback to narrowly defeat Evansville, 71-67, on Friday afternoon.
Wichita State earned an early lead and kept its distance on Friday as the Shockers took down Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals, 56-45. The win marked the ninth in a row for top-seeded Wichita State, which will be seeking its fourth conference championship to bring the program in a tie with Illinois State for total league titles.
Illinois State and Wichita State met twice during the regular season, and neither result ended well for the Redbirds. The Shockers took both decision, but never beat Illinois State by more than eight points. Wichita won the first game, 70-62, and then took a Feb. 14 contest in Normal, 68-62.
Evansville dominated Illinois State in the first half of Friday's quarterfinal round clash in the MVC Tournament. The Purple Aces were allowed to shoot 59.1 percent from the floor, and took a 37-31 lead into the intermission. But the Redbirds couldn't be held down for long, as they finally pulled ahead in the second frame thanks to 54.5 percent shooting in the half, and held on down the stretch for the win. Deontae Hawkins netted 17 points and grabbed seven to lead the team, while DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell added 13 points and Daishon Knight chipped in 12 with five boards.
The Redbirds beat Evansville for the second consecutive game, after defeating the Purple Aces in overtime, 69-67, in the team's regular-season finale last weekend. Knight took a team-leading 13.9 ppg mark into Friday's match against the Aces, while Akoon-Purcell chipped in 13.0 ppg headed into the postseason. Illinois State is averaging 69.1 ppg going into the clash with Wichita State Saturday, and will have to compete against the league's best scoring offense. Akoon-Purcell led the offensive charge for the Redbirds the last time they clashed with the Shockers, netting 18 points in the six-point loss at home. Reggie Lynch chipped in with 10 points and eight rebounds in that loss to the Shockers.
Wichita State was able to move past Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals on Friday after building up an eight-point lead at halftime, 28-20. The Shockers stunned the Salukis with a transition game that left Southern Illinois gasping to catch its breath. The Wichita State defense was stellar as well, limiting the Salukis to just 34 percent shooting from the floor in the contest, which included a 3-of-11 mark from 3-point range. Fred VanVleet led the way offensively for the Shockers, netting 13 points with four assists and three steals. Tekele Cotton chipped in with 12 points and hit 5-of-6 from the free- throw line, while Ron Baker tallied 10 points. The Shockers buried 41.7 percent of their field goal tries in the win.
Wichita State entered the tournament as the most well-rounded program in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers led the league in scoring with a 70.4 ppg average, and ranked second in the conference in scoring defense by limiting opponents to 55.9 ppg. The team's plus-14.5 ppg scoring margin was almost five points on average more than Northern Iowa's second-place scoring margin. Baker topped the team at the end of the regular season with 15.2 ppg to pace the Shockers. On Feb. 14, Baker netted 19 points and VanVleet scored 15 to lead Wichita State to its six-point road win over the Redbirds.