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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Main Attraction

For the University of Evansville to have a memorable men’s basketball season, it needed to have dependable players who had experience, skill, and the desire to succeed.

UE had one of its best seasons in years this winter, going 23-8 in the regular season, drawing larger crowds to the Ford Center.

A lot of that had to do with a big finish to the 2015 season, when the Purple Aces won the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, and returned virtually the entire team for this season.

“We had a lot of expectations, with all the returning guys and what happened the year before,” says UE coach Marty Simmons. “You never know how it’s going to turn out. There was a lot of hope. We certainly anticipated having some success.”

The foundation for this team was three seniors who have left indelible marks on the program.

D.J. Balentine, Egidijus Mockevicius, and Adam Wing were long-time starters who helped UE to a resurgence certainly in the last two years.

Balentine became UE’s all-time leading scorer with around 2,400 points. He also earned a spot for the third year in a row on the All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team, a honor his teammate Mockevicius secured for the second year in a row.

Mockevicius became the all-time leader in rebounds (more than 1,200) and blocked shots (nearly 300). The senior leads the NCAA with 14 rebounds per game and is the only player in the country to average more than 10 defensive rebounds per contest earning him the title of Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He is the first Evansville player to achieve the honor. Mockevicius also was named to the All-Defensive Team for the third time in his career.

“In this league, you have to have seniors to win,” says Lance Wilkerson, the radio play-by-play announcer for UE, and the senior associate athletic director for development and external operations. “This was a big senior class, and among the best players in the conference.”

In addition to their seniors, the Aces also have key players such as Mislav Brzoja, who transferred from Villanova after his freshman season two years ago. Brzoja was named the MVC Sixth Man of the Year. He is the third UE player to earn the honor coming off the bench to play in all 31 games, seeing an average of 24.1 minutes per game. His career-high game of 25 points against Southern Illinois helped UE overcome a late deficit to win in overtime.

The Missouri Valley Conference, or the Valley as it’s known, has been ruled for several seasons by Wichita State. The Shockers have emerged in the last five years as a strong national program, getting to the Final Four in 2013.

UE came close to gaining a split with Wichita State, losing 67-64 on the road. The Shockers won at the Ford Center 78-65.
Those were two games that stuck with UE collectively because they were league games. A crowd of 10,034 came to the Ford Center for the late-season Wichita State game.

The Aces drew more than 4,000 fans a game consistently, with a couple of crowds more than 7,000 against Indiana State, Southern Illinois, and Wichita State. Attendance was 6,552 for the final home game of the season, Senior Day on Feb. 27, where the team lost a 54-52 heartbreaker to nemesis Northern Iowa.

Season ticket sales were up 16 percent, in part because of a 29-and-younger season ticket package for $50, according to Wilkerson.

Average attendance was 5,054 per game, up from 4,430 last year. A West Side night game was popular, drawing 7,801 fans, says Wilkerson.

“To grow you have to be a community team, and we strived hard to reach out to people,” says Wilkerson.

Interest in the team relates directly to how connected the players became with their fans.

“I think that’s where our players have done an off-the-charts job — connecting with the community,” says Simmons. “My hat’s off to these guys. They take the time when they’re out in the community, and there are young people around them, they spend time with them, they sign autographs, they get pictures taken with them. They connect, and that’s always been a huge factor in how our community has come out and supported our basketball program.

“With the success they had last year, they kind of built on it, but they really are an outgoing, friendly group. Egidijus, D.J. Balentine, there’s probably few places those guys could go in this town and not be recognized. They’ve been 3-year starters, they want to be around people. They enjoy what it means to be an Evansville basketball player.”

Simmons, who has been head coach at UE for nine years, is familiar with that relationship as well. He was one of UE’s all-time greats in a two-year career in the late 1980s after he transferred from Indiana University. Simmons also was an assistant coach at UE from 1990 to 1996.

“At one time we were averaging over 10,000 fans a game for nine straight years,” says Simmons. “We’re trying to build it back to that. The support comes from people in the community. A lot of the relationships I built as a player here I still have as a coach. I do think that is unique. Being a small school, and getting the support from the people in this community is pretty special.”

Helping to foster those relationships in the community is something this group has embraced.

“The community is great,” says Balentine. “It’s rare that we go anywhere and someone doesn’t ask us for a picture or an autograph, or just talk to us. That means a lot to us. The community has been behind us since I got here.”

“D.J., the kids love him, and he’s been like that since his freshman year,” says Wilkerson.
Wing says the anticipation of fans before the season began was a lift, and that carried through the season.

“There was a lot of hype,” says Wing. “We were going out to different functions, people were stopping by saying ‘We can’t wait for this season.’ In past years that wasn’t really there. It’s a positive, they were pretty supportive, letting us know they were pulling for us.”

Simmons and the players felt like one of their best attributes as a team was the willingness to share the ball. Chemistry and unselfishness were hallmarks of this UE team. That seemed to be as true off the court as on it.

“We’re lucky,” says Simmons. “They’re good people.”

For more information about the University of Evansville Purple Aces, visit gopurpleaces.com.

As this issue went to press, the Aces season ended in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game in St. Louis. After falling behind by 17 points to Northern Iowa in the first half, UE rallied in the second half to take the lead in the final minutes, before losing 56-54 and an automatic NCAA bid, with a bounce at the buzzer.

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