Mekhi Lairy picked a good day to have the best half of his young collegiate career.
Making his first start of the season and playing against his hometown team, the freshman guard dropped 14 points in the second half to lead the Miami RedHawks to a 70-67 win over the Evansville Purple Aces at Millett Hall on Sunday.
“My coaching staff and my players just kept telling me to play my game, and I went out there in the second half and just let the game come to me,” Lairy said. “I got hot.”
Lairy, a graduate of Evansville Bosse High School, went scoreless in the first half before exploding in the second.
“I just missed a few shots I usually hit, early,” Lairy said.
His 14 points fall one shy of his career high (15) set against Pepperdine in November.
Shooting only 38 percent from the field, the RedHawks (8-5) needed Lairy and all the help they could get.
“I thought it was a game where it wasn’t the prettiest game,” MU head coach Jack Owens said. “Obviously, coming off a 10-day break and things like that, we had to find a way to win.”
Miami held the lead for much of the first seven minutes before a free throw by senior forward Dainius Chatkevicius put the Purple Aces ahead 11-10.
They remained in front for the rest of the first half and led 35-31 at halftime.
Evansville (6-7) took advantage of Miami’s 10 first-half turnovers, scoring 12 points off the mishaps.
After coming out of the locker room for the second period, the RedHawks flipped the turnover battle. They committed three errors but forced eight Evansville turnovers. Each team finished the game with 13.
The Purple Aces took a 42-35 lead — their largest of the game — at the 17-minute mark of the second half.
On the ensuing RedHawk possession, Lairy drew a foul and made both free throws to start a 12-0 run.
Evansville took a 59-56 lead with five minutes left in the contest — the final non-conference game of the season for both teams.
A minute later, Lairy seized control.
He scored six of Miami’s next seven points to give the RedHawks a 66-64 advantage.
And with the help of two offensive rebounds by junior forward Bam Bowman, they sealed a 70-67 victory with two second-chance buckets in the final minute.
Owens joked Bowman’s rebounds were “just the way we drew it up.”
They were the final two of Bowman’s career-high 13 boards and Miami’s 17 offensive rebounds. The RedHawks won the overall battle on the glass 44-30.
Evansville junior guard K.J. Riley tallied a game-high 20 points and drew nine fouls, hitting eight of his 13 shots from the charity stripe.
Sophomore forward Dalonte Brown, who had 16 points, was the only RedHawk to outscore Lairy.
Scoring isn’t anything new for the Lairy. He holds the city of Evansville’s all-time high-school points record and finished as the runner-up for Indiana’s 2018 Mr. Basketball award.
The Purple Aces recruited him when he was in high school.
“This guy (Lairy) has a unique quality about him with his shot-making ability,” Owens said. “I know he went 0-for-3 [on 3-pointers] tonight, but this guy can score points … I think, in time, he’s going to get even better. I was just proud of his overall approach today.”
With Sunday’s victory, Miami enters its Mid-American Conference schedule with eight wins for the first time since the 1995-1996 season.
Miami opens MAC play at home against Central Michigan (11-2) next Saturday (Jan. 5). The game is scheduled to tip off at 2 p.m.