Redshirt sophomore Mislav Brzoja scored a game-high 17 points to lead the University of Evansville men’s basketball team to a 58-52 win over Fresno State in the opening round of the Gulf Coast Showcase at Germain Arena.
“I’m really proud of our guys. It was a physical game and we were able to get the win,” Purple Aces head coach Marty Simmons said. “You have to give Fresno State credit. They played very physical. I am happy about how we were able to respond against them.”
Brzoja led the way for UE (3-0) with his 17 tallies and five boards. He hit 12 of 13 free throw attempts. D.J. Balentine notched 13 points in the victory while Egidijus Mockevicius had another double-double with 10 points and 10 caroms.
With the win, Evansville will play Green Bay today at 6 p.m. ET.
Karachi Edo matched Brzoja’s total of 17 tallies. He hit seven of his eight attempts while blocking a game-high five shots. Paul Watson registered 13 tallies while Julien Lewis notched 11.
Evansville got off to a strong start, reeling off the first five points as Adam Wing found Egidijus Mockevicius for the opening points of the contest. Fresno State got on the board just over three minutes in as Paul Watson knocked down a pair of free throws. Watson struck again a few minutes later, hitting a trey to tie it up at 5-5.
The Bulldogs took their first lead at 6-5 before going up as many as five at 15-10 with 11:14 remaining in the half. Evansville made its way back with a 15-6 rally to go up 25-21 in the final moments of the period. Their lead stood strong at the break at 29-25.
Mislav Brzoja played a pivotal role in the late rally, finishing the period with 10 points while hitting all five free throws. Included in that was a circus-like play where he wove through three defenders on an and-one. Watson led the Bulldogs with ten in the period.
Out of the half, it was UE striking first on a Mockevicius free throw. Later, D.J. Balentine gave Evansville its largest lead of the game at 33-25 with his second trey of the day. Julien Lewis responded with a long jumper before Mockevicius had a powerful dunk to reestablish the 8-point advantage at 37-29.
An 11-1 run saw Fresno State roar right back as they hit four of seven shots en route to a 40-38 lead with nine minutes remaining. Just as fast as the Bulldogs made their run, the Aces had a rally of their own. Balentine knocked down a triple with 8:17 remaining to put the Aces up 42-40. Later, the junior from Kokomo, Ind. found an open Wing near the end of the shot clock and he drilled another trey as UE went up 47-40 with four minutes left on the clock.
With just over two minutes left, Brzoja gave the Aces their largest lead of the game at 49-40 with a pair of free throws. On the ensuing possession, Marvelle Harris hit a triple to get the lead back to six. It ended a scoreless streak of 6:48 as the Bulldogs missed all four shots while turning the ball over three times.
Things got very interesting in the final minute. UE led by eight with 1:10 left before Karachi Edo hit an old-fashioned 3-point play to get within five. Duane Gibson turned the ball over on the next possession, but made up for it right away. He forced a turnover on the in-bound and converted it into a layup as UE took a 53-46 lead.
Seconds later, Darnell Taylor knocked down another triple to cut the deficit to four at 53-49. Down the stretch, though, Brzoja calmly hit all four free throws while Balentine hit another as the Aces escaped with a 58-52 victory.
Fresno State finished with the advantage in shooting (39.6%-38.3%) and rebounding (36-32), but the difference came from the free throw line. Evansville converted 17 attempts while the Bulldogs hit nine.