Jan. 18, 2009
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Winners of two of their last three games, the Salukis knew they were improved. Just how much better Southern Illinois has become since its 0-3 conference start wasn't apparent, though, until it handed league-leading Bradley a 68-62 loss Sunday night.
The margin of victory for the Salukis (8-10, 3-4) understated their performance. SIU led by as many as 21 points in the second half and was coasting down the stretch with a 14-point lead, until a Bradley flurry in the last 90 seconds cut the deficit to single digits.
The game unfolded in stark contrast to the team's first meeting on Dec. 28, which was won easily by Bradley, 79-63. In that game, the Braves shot 55 percent from the floor and made 10 3-point shots.
Saluki head coach Chris Lowery said his team tried a different approach on defense this time, using fewer half-court traps and playing more straight man-to-man. The strategy worked, as Bradley shot 37 percent in the first half and did not make a 3-point attempt until Theron Wilson's triple with 1:18 remaining and the game out of reach.
"We're not trapping and doing the things we did before," Lowery explained. "(Our defensive philosophy) is more in the gaps and more protect your teammates, instead of let's gamble."
The Salukis forced 20 turnovers and had 12 steals -- the most since the season-opener against Division II California (Pa.).
"We were getting tips and stuff like that by being in position," Lowery said. "I think our guys did a great job of playing position defense."
"They were the physical team," said Bradley coach Jim Les. "We got rattled, especially offensively. I thought we got a little rushed and tried to force the issue."
The game was tied, 12-12, but Bryan Mullins hit a 3-pointer to start a 20-5 Saluki first-half run. During the span of 11 minutes, Bradley committed eight turnovers and made just two field goals.
"Their pressure sped us up," Les said. "We have some new guys and some young guys, and this is the first time they have played in this environment. I think it got the better of them for a few minutes."
SIU's offense was electric during one stretch of the second half when Dillard threw a wrap-around pass to Anthony Booker for a dunk, and the Salukis scored on four-straight possessions to claim their biggest lead.
"We have been getting better offensively running our sets," Lowery noted.
The Salukis could have padded their margin of victory, except they struggled from the free-throw line, missing 15 attempts and converting just 60 percent.
Still, Lowery was pleased with the way his team bounced back from a disappointing overtime loss at Creighton last Wednesday.
"It would be really easy to come lay an egg today after an emotional loss like Creighton," he said. "I thought we came and played extremely hard today."