Balentine’s night propels Purple Aces past Drake

ST. LOUIS – A 4-minute drought for the Drake men’s basketball team in the first half Thursday gave Evansville a small window of opportunity to swing momentum.

And D.J. Balentine did just that, triggering a 14-0 run with six points and Balentine’s 30 points and four assists led the Purple Aces to a 69-61 win over the Bulldogs during the opening round of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at the Scottrade Center.

Egidiju Mockevicious also had 19 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks in the win as Evansville moved to 14-18 on the season and will next face top-seeded, undefeated and third-ranked Wichita State in tonight’s quarterfinals.

Drake ends its first season under Ray Giacoletti with a record of 15-16.

“Take your hat off to Balentine tonight, we tried everybody against him tonight,” said Giacoletti. “We tried playing zone, switching defenses and he’s a guy that’s become extremely versatile in not just scoring but passing the ball.”

Richard Carter scored 26 points and had seven assists in his final game in a Drake uniform, while Jordan Daniels was the only other Bulldog in double-figures with 11. Aaron Hawley scored nine in his final game and Seth Van Deest exited the program with one point and eight rebounds in his final contest.

“I’m proud of our three seniors and what they’ve been able to accomplish and buying in on a brand new staff,” Giacoletti said. “I couldn’t be more proud of each of them in different ways. This team has grown as we’ve gone through the year, they’ve never splintered, cracked or quit and I appreciate the foundation they’ve laid in our first year here at Drake.”

The difference in the game came at the foul line where Evansville was 25-of-32. Drake buried nine 3-pointers but attempted just 10 free throws and made six. The Bulldogs, who led by as many as six in the first half, shot 44 percent from the floor but had a hard time containing Balentine, who was 11-of-13 from the line. Mockevicious also fared well at both ends, hit 5-of-6 from the floor and 9-of-12 from the line in the win.

Drake led 21-19 with 8:07 to play in the first half, but Evansville’s 14-0 run gave the Purple Aces momentum and the 20-7 finish to the half put them up 39-28 at the break. Drake outscored Evansville 33-30 in the second half but it wasn’t enough to overcome the first-half jolt from the Aces.

“They hit back-to-back 3-pointers when we didn’t get matched up in transition, and it happened so quick that we went from even to down six,” Giacoletti said of the start of that run. “They’re a difficult team to prepare for because most teams run ball screen offense and theirs is motion offense.”

The Bulldogs got within six two different times in the second half but both times, Evansville responded. Balentine, the MVC’s leading scorer, came right back with four free throws and a jumper to put his team back ahead by double-digits.

Drake trailed 58-52 with 8:50 to go in the game but couldn’t get any closer the rest of the way.

Former Marshalltown Community College standout Chris Caird hit a pair of treys in the first half and scored six points in 12 minutes.