Feb. 4, 2012
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - The Salukis never trailed in Saturday's game, but nearly everyone in SIU Arena could sense victory slipping away from the Dawgs in the waning moments. Everyone except Jeff Early, that is.
With the game clock winding down and the score tied, 52-52, Evansville turned to star guard Colt Ryan to take the potential game-winning shot. The crowd held its collective breath, fearful that the Salukis would squander a performance that, up until the last five minutes of the game, had been one of their best of the season.
Ryan never got a chance to take the winning shot. Early jumped in front of a Troy Taylor pass intended for Ryan with six seconds remaining. He then drove the length the floor, was fouled and made the winning free throw with 2.6 seconds left to lift Southern Illinois past Evansville, 53-52.
The play was a risky move that paid off for the junior guard, who led SIU with 14 points, eight rebounds and five steals.
"I was actually not thinking about gambling," Early said afterward. "Coach (Chris) Lowery has been telling me all year to be smart. I knew it was going back to (Ryan). I just took that chance and (Taylor) didn't see me coming."
The Salukis (8-16, 5-8) led by as many as 13 points in the contest, but spent the last five minutes of the game trying to protect a six-point lead. T.J. Lindsay's 3-point shot gave Southern a 52-46 advantage with 4:59 remaining, but that would be SIU's last field goal of the game. Their next seven offensive possessions yielded five missed shots and two turnovers.
"You think you're snake bitten at that point and karma is going the other way," said Lowery. "I thought the kids did a great job of fighting."
While Southern's offense was scuffling, the Purple Aces (11-12, 6-7) clawed their way into a tie with a driving layup by Kenny Harris and four-straight free throws to make it 52-52 with 2:24 to go. They had three chances to take their first lead of the game, but Ryan missed a jumper at 1:39 and Taylor committed two turnovers in the final minute.
"(Evansville) never took the lead and that was very important for our guys to be able to stop them on consecutive possessions without having them make a shot or foul them," Lowery said.
The victory wasn't pretty for Southern, which committed 18 turnovers and made just 2-of-12 shots from 3-point.
The defense, however, was beautiful. The Salukis held Evansville 23 points below its season scoring average. Ryan, who averages 21 points per game, was limited to 13 on 4-of-11 shooting. He was guarded, not coincidentally, by Early, who has become SIU's emotional leader.
"(Early) got into Colt, switched when necessary, did the right things," Lowery said. "He came out three times in the game and every one of them he was gassed, it was to exhaustion. It's a wake-up call for some of the other guys -- that's how you have to play. Play to exhaustion and then your next chance you play to exhaustion again."
Evansville uses a smallish lineup and runs an offense that features hard screens, sharp cuts and crisp ball movement. After losing by 18 at Evansville last December, SIU altered its game plan this time. The Salukis often played big, with three forwards in the game. The size advantage gave them an edge on the boards and in the paint, where forward Dantiel Daniels scored 11 points and blocked five shots. Forward Mamadou Seck had his seventh double-double of the season with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Yet it was Early's defense on Ryan that was the difference.
"I used a football mentality," said Early, referring to his ability to fight through screens and keep tabs on Ryan. "I wasn't trying to be dirty, but just let them know I'm coming -- if you screen, you're going to feel me coming. (Ryan's) a great player -- one of the best in the Valley."
Evansville was limited to 41 percent shooting in the game and coughed up 16 turnovers.
"That team is really hard to guard, obviously with Colt Ryan averaging 23 in the league," Lowery said. "With the way they shoot the ball, to hold them to 52 points is incredible."
In a season with twice as many losses as victories, it was a moment to savor for the crowd of 3,378.
"This (win) helps us, because you're on pins and needles and you're competing and learning how to win in this situation," Lowery said. "That was a big play with the game tied to get a steal."
Was it ever.