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Former SIUE coaches Simmons, Forrester have Evansville on brink of NCAA Tournament berth

MVC Tournament: Evansville coach Marty Simmons guides his Purple Aces into championship game

Evansville coach Marty Simmons talks about his Purple Aces' preparation to play in MVC Tournament championship game Sunday against Northern Iowa.
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Evansville coach Marty Simmons talks about his Purple Aces' preparation to play in MVC Tournament championship game Sunday against Northern Iowa.

Former Southern Illinois University Edwardsville coach Marty Simmons has his Evansville Purple Aces on the verge of something special.

Second-seeded Evansville pounded sixth-seeded Indiana State 68-42 on Saturday in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Scottrade Center.

The Purple Aces (25-8) advanced to the championship game for the first time since 1999 and will play fourth-seeded Northern Iowa (21-12) at 1:05 p.m. Sunday with an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament on the line.

Evansville has never won the MVC Tournament and is seeking its first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 1999 when it lost to Kansas in the first round. The Purple Aces have played in five NCAA Tournaments, their lone win coming over Oregon State in 1989.

“Just really proud, really happy for our team. Great opportunity,” said the 51-year-old Simmons, in his ninth year at Evansville after spending five seasons at SIUE (2002-07). “Most young kids grow up dreaming of having this opportunity, and our guys worked hard. They’ve done a great job of staying together, and we just feel fortunate.”

Evansville took control early and had no difficulty eliminating the Sycamores (15-17). D.J. Balentine had 14 points, Simmons’ son Blake had 13 points, Jaylon Brown had 11 points and Mislav Brzoja had 10 points and nine rebounds.

The Sycamores shot 26 percent from the field (14-for-55) and were 1-for-16 on 3-pointers. Evansville out-rebounded Indiana State 46-38.

Devonte Brown led all scorers with 15 points for Indiana State.

“I was certain that game was going to go a little different, especially after (Friday) and how hard we played and how well we played,” said Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, whose team defeated third-seeded Illinois State in the quarterfinals. “We ran into a buzzsaw.”

Marty Simmons said defending MVC Tournament champion Northern Iowa will pose a major challenge for the Purple Aces. Evansville lost twice to the Panthers in the regular season: 57-54 on the road, 54-52 at home.

“Us coaches, we’d like to have about three weeks to prepare for Northern Iowa, but the players, I’m sure they’re exactly where they want to be,” Simmons said. “They’re like the NBA guys. They hate practice, and they just want to play the games.

“We’re just blessed to have the opportunity. We’re going to do the best we can. Both teams don’t have a lot of time. We just played each other not too long ago. Both teams will probably make some adjustments. We’ll see what happens.”

Forrester lands on feet

One of Simmons’ assistants is another former SIUE coach, Lennox Forrester, whose contract was not renewed at the end of last season. Forrester was 82-146 in eight seasons with the Cougars, including back-to-back berths in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.

“It’s a great accomplishment for our team,” Forrester said. “This is what they wanted to do and worked so hard for in the offseason and during the season. We’ve gotten to the championship game, but we’re still shooting for what our goal is, and that’s to get to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s going to be a challenge now to get these guys focused and locked in and see how we can bounce back with a quick turnaround for a 1 o’clock game, a championship game, against a very, very good Northern Iowa team.”

Forrester enjoyed his time at SIUE, despite his dismissal in March 2015.

“It was a tough situation, but at the same time, you can look at a tough situation and make it a positive,” Forrester said. “I thought it was very positive. I was there for eight years and as I left, it was, ‘Did I work to help improve the program?’ I hope I did.

“It was a great honor to be a part of that program. It was a great honor to even have the opportunity to be the head coach at SIUE. I understand the profession. There was no hard feelings at all. You’ve got to win. When you don’t win enough, you’ve got to understand, ‘Hey, people like cheering for winning teams.’”

Rickman completes season

Collinsville High graduate Emondre Rickman, a 6-foot-9 freshman, had five points and five rebounds in nine minutes for Indiana State.

Rickman, who played in 31 games, including two starts, averaged 2.3 points and 2.8 rebounds and led the Sycamores in blocked shots with 21.

“I definitely learned a lot,” a tearful Rickman said of his season. “Especially playing with the seniors that I played with. I’ve learned a lot from each and every one of them; they each taught me something. They taught me a lot about the MVC.

“This is a tough conference. I’m glad I got to play my freshman year because I got to experience and see what this conference is like. It’s a pretty tough conference. I have a lot to learn and a lot to do.”

Lansing is encouraged about Rickman’s progress.

“Emondre, if he wants to be a great player in this league and one of the best bigs to play in this league, I think he can,” Lansing said. “He’s oozing of tremendous potential. He made steps this year. We were young inside and he had to play. It would have been better to be able to redshirt him, but we had to throw him to the wolves a little bit.”

It’s called learning on the job.

“Every freshman wants to play,” Lansing said. “But to be fair to him, it would have been great to redshirt him because he had to go in there when he wasn’t physically ready, didn’t understand the pace of the game at all, just how hard you have to go all the time. He showed tremendous spurts a lot of different times, but now it’s, ‘How long can you do that in extended play?’”

Shockers shocked

Jeremy Morgan sank a 3-pointer from the left wing with 1:18 to play in overtime, putting the Northern Iowa ahead for good in their win 57-52 win over the top-seeded Shockers.

Wes Washpun led all scorers with 20 points as the Panthers defeated the Shockers for the second time in three meetings this season.

“I have not been involved in a game that is that close and with that much on the line, and guys are like really enjoying it, smiling and talking in a way that allows them to go out and make plays,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “That was really fun for me today.”

Wichita State, which led 10-0, 17-6 and 21-10 in the first half, shot 23 percent in the second half and 32 percent in the game (20-for-63). The Shockers were 2-for-24 on 3-pointers.

Seniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, Wichita State’s heart and soul, combined for just 20 points and were 7-for-27 from the field. Baker was 5-for-18 and scored 12 points, with no 3-pointers, while VanVleet was 2-for-9 and scored eight points.

Wichita State’s only 3-pointers came from VanVleet and Conner Frankamp. The Shockers lost in the semifinals for the second consecutive year and will have to wait for one week to learn whether they will be selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re going to play again,” said Shockers coach Gregg Marshall, whose team is 24-8. “It’s going to be the NCAA Tournament, and if not, the NIT.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

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