Jan. 14, 2009
By Tom Weber
OMAHA, Neb. - "We had this game won twice," said an exasperated Saluki head coach Chris Lowery, shortly after Southern Illinois' stunning loss in overtime at Creighton, 73-72, Wednesday.
The Salukis (7-10, 2-4) surrendered four-point leads in the final minute of both regulation and overtime. The catastrophic sequence of events was disheartening for a Saluki team that otherwise had one of its better performances of the season.
Trailing, 63-60, in the final moments of regulation, the Bluejays (14-4, 4-2) came down the floor searching for a desperation three. Cavel Witter dribbled into traffic at the top of the key and had his 3-point shot deflected with three seconds remaining, however a foul was charged to Kevin Dillard. Witter calmly made all three free throws to send the game to OT.
"We were going to try to foul right away," said Lowery, who did not want his club to allow a 3-point attempt in that circumstance. "We bumped them and thought we had a foul, but then they called a foul on the three. (Witter) stepped up and made all three shots, so you have to give him credit."
The Bluejays (14-4, 4-2) needed more heroics in overtime.
Southern had possession of the ball and a 69-65 lead with 53 seconds remaining. That's when the train came off the tracks for SIU. Dillard was trapped on an inbounds play and had the ball stolen by Josh Dotzler. Dotzler passed it to P'Allen Stinnett, who nailed a 3-pointer, closing the gap to 69-68.
"It was a freshman going against a senior, and a freshman not understanding time and score, and a senior having a sense of urgency, knowing that they needed the ball back," said Lowery, describing the costly turnover. It was Stinnett's fifth 3-pointer of the game, and he finished with 29 points.
Until that turnover, SIU had handled Creighton's full-court press almost to perfection. The Salukis had committed just 10 turnovers in the game, and none off the press.
With no timeouts remaining, SIU brought the ball up the floor, trying to nurse a one-point lead and run some time off the clock. Freshman guard Ryan Hare drove the basket and was called for charging with 34 seconds to go.
"Sometimes, kids just see things that you don't see or you don't want them to see," said Lowery, who from the bench was urging Hare to pull the ball out and run the offense.
Creighton brought the ball quickly up the floor, and Booker Woodfox hit a triple to give the Bluejays the lead with 27 seconds to go. SIU had a chance to regain the lead, but Bryan Mullins' 3-pointer with nine seconds was no good.
"It wasn't effort," said Lowery. "It was us being young. I hate to say that, and I don't want to use that as an excuse at all, because they know better. We don't practice being young. We practice being a player."
Altman said fans who left when the deficit seemed insurmountable should not have given up on his team.
"A lot of guys would have quit, but we didn't quit," he said. "It's guys being resilient and not quitting."
Lowery praised Creighton's comeback as well.
"You have to give them credit," he said. "They played hard without fouling. They made clutch shots. I think our young guys pouted a little bit after they made bad plays, instead of just keeping your cool and just playing. It's a valuable learning lesson for them."
The Salukis continued their torrid shooting from 3-point range, making 9-of-20 on the night. It helped them rally from an eight-point halftime deficit.
"It's frustrating, because we did everything possible to win the game, and in the last 10 seconds of regulation and the last 30 seconds of overtime, we did everything possible to give them the game," Lowery said.
Dillard scored 21 points to lead SIU, while Carlton Fay added 13. Both players made clutch threes during the guts of the contest to put Southern in position to win.
With two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, Lowery said each game is a learning experience for his team.
"It's unfortunate that they had to learn by losing," he said. "They could have learned by winning the game and just being solid with the basketball."
Of some solace to Lowery was the fact his team turned in its third-straight strong performance, albeit a loss, after starting the conference season 0-3.
"We're a team now," Lowery said. "I think that's pretty clear. We weren't a team until a couple weeks ago."
"That's a much different Southern team than two weeks ago," he said.
"It was a great college game, another good game between us and Creighton," said Lowery. "We have to keep building and getting better. It's a learning experience for them. You hate to lose and learn at the same time."