Having been recruited by his hometown college basketball program, Evansville-native and Miami guard Mekhi Lairy didn’t have that chip on his shoulder when the two teams met on Sunday.
He didn’t need it.
The 5-foot-8 freshman scored all 14 of his points in the second half, leading the RedHawks back from a seven-point deficit to a 70-67 win over the Purple Aces before a crowd of 1,456 at Miami’s Millett Hall.
“It was huge,” said the left-handed Lairy, who made his first career start went 0-for-2 from the field before halftime and 5-for-9 after to help the RedHawks improve to 8-5 in their final non-conference game of the season. “The coaching staff and players kept telling me to just play my game. I let the game come to me. I got into the flow.”
Sophomore forward Dalonte Brown led Miami with 16 points and junior forward Bam Bowman finished with a career-high 13 rebounds, helping the RedHawks outrebound Evansville, 44-30. The total included 17 offensive rebounds, leading to an 11-2 advantage in second-chance points. The 6-8 Bowman’s putback of his own miss with four seconds left in the game provided the final margin and forced Evansville junior guard K.J. Riley to try a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Riley finished with a game-high 20 points. Sophomore forward Evan Kuhlman, a Lakota East product, started and was scoreless with three rebounds and three assists in 23:57.
Lairy logged a career-high 37 minutes, 21 seconds and scored six points during a 12-0 Miami run after Evansville opened up its biggest lead, 42-37, with 17:03left in the game. He also gave the RedHawks the lead for good at 66-64 on a 10-foot pullup jumper with 3:04 left in the game.
“Outside of his parents and relatives and his high school coach, I’m his biggest fan,” second-year RedHawks coach Jack Owens said. “He’s just scratching the surface. What I’m most proud of is the way he defended. He’s just going to continue to grow and develop and be a great player for us.”
Miami (8-5) overcame leading scorer Nike Sibande managing just six points – 11 below his average – and missing the front end of two bonus free throw opportunities in the last seven minutes to finish its non-conference schedule above .500, including 6-5 against NCAA Division I teams, for the third straight season. Evansville, which plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, slipped to 6-7.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game,” Owens said, pointing out his team’s 10-day break. “You’ve got to find a way to win. Early on, we didn’t have that passion. The fight wasn’t there. It wasn’t pretty, but I liked how we found ways to win at the end. We found ways to win when the ball wasn’t going in.”
Sophomore guard Isaiah Coleman-Lands, who scored eight points in the RedHawks’ 79-55 win over South Carolina State on December 20 and is averaging 6.8 points per game over the last five outings, was sidelined after aggravating the knee injury that kept him out of the first seven games.
The RedHawks are off until opening their Mid-American Conference schedule on Saturday at 2 p.m. against Central Michigan in the third of four consecutive home games.
Miami went into the game 4-11 in the series against the Purple Aces, including a four-game losing streak since an 82-58 win on Nov. 23, 2009, at Millett Hall. The teams hadn’t played since a Purple Aces 69-50 win at Oxford on Nov. 19, 2014.
Evansville’s two five-point leads were the largest enjoyed by either team in the first half, which ended with the Purple Aces leading, 35-31. Brown, limited to 14 minutes and 11 points in the win over South Carolina State, led the RedHawks with 12 points in 11:53 before halftime.
Miami freshman forward Elijah McNamara also made his first career start. The 6-9 Pickeringtom (Ohio) High School product got off to a quick start with four points and two rebounds before the first media timeout.