Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 3/3/12
ST. LOUIS Illinois State guard Bryant Allen may have described it best. "This is what March Madness is all about, baby," Allen said. "Moments like this are what you live for and this is a great moment for us." Minutes earlier, Allen and his Illinois State teammates were celebrating on the Scottrade Center floor, pointing to their fans and the scoreboard that read a surprising final: Illinois State 65, Wichita State 64. Not many expected Saturday's Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinal to be much of a game. Programs for a Wichita State-Creighton final were likely already at the printer. All that remained was to play it out. Whoops. Illinois State apparently didn't get the memo, overcoming a double-digit deficit in the second half to stun the top-seeded Shockers and most of the college basketball world to reach Sunday's MVC championship against No. 2 seed Creighton. The fourth-seeded Redbirds are now amazingly just one game away from reaching the NCAA Tournament, something they haven't done since 1998. "I don't think anybody outside this locker room thought we were going to pull it out besides our fans," said Illinois State forward Jackie Carmichael. "It's huge for us. It's a great momentum builder. "There were times where we really could have given up but that's not what this team is about." When the 14th-ranked Shockers went up 41-28 early in the second half, it looked like it might be a blowout. But the Redbirds refused to go away, going on a 14-4 run to pull the score to within 45-42 with 14:46 left. A three-point play by Carmichael with 7:44 left to play gave Illinois State their first lead since they led 11-10 early in the game. After the teams traded buckets, the junior's layup with 4:35 left to play tied the game at 63-63. "Most people probably turned their TV's off after we were down by ten, thinking they were going to win," said guard Tyler Brown. "But we're not that type of team. We have a lot of guys that are going to fight to the end. "I feel like I owed them something from the last two games we played them. We lost and I don't think I played up to my potential, so I felt like I really owed them something. I'm just glad I was able to give it to them." A free throw by Wichita State's Toure' Murray gave the Shockers a one-point lead with just under three minutes remaining, which stood until the game's final tense moments. But with 18 second left, the Redbirds spread the floor and let the hot hand go to work. Brown, already with 23 points, backed into the lane and drew a foul with six seconds left. With Illinois State's almost miracle NCAA Tournament hopes clinging to life, Brown calmly sank both free throws to put them up 65-64. Wichita State got two good looks in the final seconds, but both rimmed off. The upset was complete. "I've never felt something like that before," Brown said. "I've never been a part of something this big, something that means so much to a lot of people. "Our fans are here and it means a lot to them, the players and coaches and the people watching at home. It's a great feeling." The Redbirds entered the game as double-digit underdogs in Las Vegas. But when the final buzzer had sounded, the were celebrating their first win over a ranked opponent since they defeated No. 14 Iowa, 89-88, on Dec. 29, 1987. Illinois State, which had lost 24-straight games to ranked teams, was predicted to finish eighth in the Valley's preseason poll. Now they're a game away from cutting down the nets and taking an improbable trip to the big dance. "We came here to win three," said Carmichael, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds despite missing more than ten minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. "We're in the moment right now. It's a great feeling. This team worked really hard to get to this point where we are right now. We're going to keep working and hopefully take this momentum into tomorrow." Despite foul trouble in the first half and the ejection of key big man John Wilkins in the second half, the Redbirds refused to let their season end. They shot just 33.9 percent from the field, but held the firepower of Wichita State to just 34.9 percent. The Redbirds were out-rebounded by six, but committed six fewer turnovers. They were beaten in points in the paint, second chance points and bench points, but finished with more fast break points and a 12-2 advantage in points off turnovers. "It was one of the toughest, hardest-fought performances of any team I've ever been around," said Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich. "We all thought we had a chance, but we also knew realistically we were going to have to play tremendous. "When you see your group go to a level that maybe they didn't know they have and become just different and become tougher men and all that, it makes you a little emotional." Bubble teams across the country will be rooting for Creighton Sunday, hoping Illinois State doesn't turn the Valley into a three-bid league and steal a spot from a deserving at-large team. But Illinois State could care less. Making their third appearance in the MVC tournament finals in the past five years, the Redbirds are hoping for a different result than the previous two. The Redbirds lost to Northern Iowa in overtime of the 2009 title game. After a shocking upset Saturday, they're hoping they've got at least one more left in them. "I'm sure a lot of people didn't think we were going to win this game," Brown said. "All we had was us, our teams, our fans - that's all we have. "This is what it's all about, people thinking one team can't beat another team and doesn't even have a chance, but as long as the team believes in themselves, then they can do whatever they want. We're going to be ready for tomorrow."
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