EVANSVILLE, IN (WFIE)
Last weekend, the Purple Aces basketball team reached the 9-win plateau before Christmas for the first time in its program history. Today, the team took that one step further, earning its 10th win prior to the New Year for the first time as the team earned an 85-80 win over Coppin State in its final non-conference game at the Ford Center on Sunday.
Improving to 10-2 on the season, the University of Evansville enters league play with double digit wins for the first time since joining the Missouri Valley Conference. The last time UE had 10 wins going into conference play was in the 1988-89 season.
Coppin State (1-12) trailed the Aces by as many as 19 in the second half before rallying back to take a 1-point lead in the final minutes. D.J. Balentine and Duane Gibson combined to score nine points in the final 1:31 to rally back for the win.
Balentine scored 20 in the first half on his way to a season-high of 32. He was 10/18 from the field and hit three triples. It marked his eighth game in a row with 20 or more points, just one behind head coach Marty Simmons' mark from his senior season in 1988.
“It was a rough game, Coppin State played really well,” Balentine said. “We have a tough one coming up Thursday, it is a great way to start in conference.”
Out of the gate, Balentine hit his first five shots as he recorded 12 points in the first eight minutes of action. Coppin State was also coming out on fire, knocking down its first three triples of the day to take a 9-8 lead. A layup by Christian Benzon gave the Aces their first lead of more than a possession just over five minutes in (14-9) before the advantage grew to double figures on a Jaylon Moore dunk with 6:34 left in the half.
Over the final minutes of the half, the Aces were able to take control, entering the break up 45-30, its largest lead of the day. Evansville shot 55.9% in the half (19-34) while Balentine was the lone double figure scorer for either team with 20. The Eagles finished the period at 32.1% but were a solid 4-10 from outside.
Things looked to be going Evansville's way early in the second half as a pair of Blake Simmons free throws gave the Aces their largest lead of the game at 56-37 at the 16-minute mark. That is where the tides began to turn. Led by four points from Christian Kessee, the Eagles reeled off 12 points in a row while hitting five consecutive shots to cut the gap to just seven points with 13:39 left.
Their run extended to a 20-5 stretch as they got within four points on another Kessee bucket three minutes later. Balentine and Blake Simmons looked to give the Aces some breathing room, combining to score the next six points to make it a 67-57 game, but the Eagles refused to relent. They quickly scored six in arrow to get back within four with just over six minutes remaining before a Balentine free throw ended the run.
Two minutes later, the Eagles rally continued as back-to-back triples gave them a 69-68 lead, their first advantage since the 16:08 mark of the opening stanza. Inside of three minutes remaining, a Balentine bucket gave UE a 72-70 edge, but the 11th trey of the day and the third for Sterling Smith put the lead back in CSU's hands at 73-72 nearing the 2-minute mark.
Momentum shifted back to UE in the final minutes as they scored eight in a row to go up by 7 at 80-73 with 26 ticks on the clock. Despite the fourth triple from Coppin State's Smith, the Aces were able to hang on for the 85-80 triumph.
Egidijus Mockevicius put up his eighth double-double in 11 games as he finished with 15 points and tied for the team best with 10 rebounds. Simmons notched his fourth double-digit game in a row, finishing with 13 points on while connecting on all four free throw attempts. Mislav Brzoja made the first start of his career, playing a career-high 34 minutes while setting his career mark with 10 rebounds. He also recorded six assists.
Duane Gibson put up a great stat line off the bench for the Aces. He led everyone with seven helpers while registering five rebounds and a pair of steals.
Four Eagles finishing in double digits, led by Smith's 22. He was 9-16 from the floor and notched four triples. Arnold Fripp had a double-double, posting 13 points and 11 rebounds. Daquan Brickhouse had 12 points while Kessee notched 11.
The Aces had a 38-30 advantage on the boards while outshooting CSU by a 53.7%-41.8% final.
Missouri Valley Conference play begins on Thursday for the Purple Aces as they welcome Northern Iowa to the Ford Center for a 7 p.m. game. UNI should be ranked in the contest. The Panthers were 23rd in last week's poll and defeated South Dakota State on Sunday. For tickets, call 812-488-ACES or purchase at the Carson Center Ticket Office or at the Ford Center.