DES MOINES — Two wins in the first four conference games might not sound impressive for some college basketball programs.
For a program that’s struggled through turbulent times at the start of the season, finding wins is a needed boost for the team’s psyche.
For the Drake men’s basketball program, two wins in the first week and a half of Missouri Valley Conference play has rejuvenated spirits in the Knapp Center locker room.
The Bulldogs picked up their second Missouri Valley Conference win Sunday with an 88-76 win over Evansville at the Knapp Center.
“We’re so happy for our guys that they’ve been able to get rewarded in the last couple of weeks with some wins,” said Drake coach Jeff Rutter. “It’s a group that doesn’t get ahead of themselves. We talk about winning possessions, talk about putting our best foot forward, talk about preparation. Today was a good day.”
Drake sits at 2-2 in the Valley heading into tonight’s league game against Indiana State at the Knapp Center. Tip is set for 7 p.m. The Bulldogs then have their first meeting of the season with in-state rival Northern Iowa on Sunday. Tip is set for 3 p.m. at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls.
Three weeks ago, Drake’s men’s basketball team was searching for positive momentum.
Any kind of positive momentum.
Coming on the heels of a 2-10 start and an early-season coaching change, the Bulldogs were looking for a spark heading into Missouri Valley Conference play.
The Bulldogs have started to find that spark.
Drake’s win Sunday showed how far the team has come. Earlier in the season, a game like Sunday’s was one the Bulldogs would have lost.
That’s starting to change.
“Our struggles early played a big part in that,” said junior Reid Timmer. “We’ve been in those situations before. We’re finally able to execute where maybe in a few other games early in the season we were unable to and lose a few games by two or three points.”
Coming out of the under-four minute media timeout, the Bulldogs seized control with a 14-0 run.
“Going into the end, we knew we were not playing to our potential,” Timmer said. “We said this is the time to go win the game, to do this and that. We went out of that huddle with full confidence being able to execute.”
Ore Arogundade buried a couple of key triples. The Bulldogs made four free throws in that stretch, along with a layup from T.J. Thomas.
“We play to win, not to lose,” Arogundade said. “It’s a matter of being confident. If I can knock it down and change it I do.”
The Bulldogs made four more free throws in the final 45 seconds to seal it.
Drake’s defense came up with key stops in the final four minutes, holding Evansville without a field goal on eight straight possessions.
The Bulldogs went exclusively to a man-to-man defense down the stretch. Drake’s defense was as salty as its been all season when it needed to be.
“Thinking back to games in the balance like it was there at the end, it’s as good as its been,” Rutter said. “Those were big-time defensive possessions, and for us to be in base defense and be able to finish and execute like that was special for us.”
Drake made all the little plays late as well. A jump ball turned into a Drake possession and bucket. The Bulldogs drew a charge on Evansville offensive ace Jaylon Brown late, then turned it into points at the other end.
“At the shootaround, we talked about confidence, more to let them know we’ve had it for awhile,” Rutter said. “The point of emphasis was grit and hustle. That’s something we never take for granted. We got outhustled the last two games and to compound it, we didnt’ shoot very well. It was that grit. All those things added up.”
Timmer was effective from the floor and at the line, coming out on top in a scoring battle with Evansville’s star Brown. Timmer scored a game-high 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-7 from downtown and was 8-of-8 at the free throw line. He made six straight in the final 59 seconds to ice it.
“He’s a scorer,” Rutter said. “He took good shots. He let the game come to him. He’s going to hunt that thing.”
Arogundade added 17 points.
His baskets fired up the bench and the Drake fans.
“I try to bring a personality to this team,” Arogundade said. “It’s fun out there.”
The bench cheered baskets, defensive stops, firing up the Drake crowd.
“These guys are all really pulling for one another,” Rutter said. “They do not care who gets the credit. They all want to play. Everybody’s accepted their role for that game. They’re a united group.”