Feb. 13, 2007
By Tom Weber
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - Both head coaches agreed it wasn't a picture-perfect game, but Southern Illinois will happily hang a 51-47 win over Missouri State on its wall as it continues to march toward a conference championship.
The #15-ranked Salukis (22-5, 13-3) shot only 28 percent in the second half, but made six-straight free throws in the final minute of Tuesday night's contest to secure the victory.
Meanwhile, the Bears (19-8, 10-6) were left to ponder what might have been. They had the ball and a 43-40 lead with two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game. Their next three possessions resulted in two missed shots and a turnover.
Southern Illinois didn't squander its opportunities during crunch time. Randal Falker, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, scored on a reverse lay up with 2:08 remaining. Jamaal Tatum buried a clutch 3-pointer, giving the Salukis a 45-43 lead with just over a minute to play.
"They executed to perfection down the stretch," Missouri State head coach Barry Hinson said. "That's what good teams do. That's why they're in the top 15."
"We came in and stole one," Saluki head coach Chris Lowery said. "That's what you have to do if you're going to have a chance to win a conference championship."
Once Southern had the lead, all it needed to do in the final minute to extend its winning streak to eight games was make free throws. Tatum dropped in all four of his attempts, and Wesley Clemmons made both ends of a pressure-packed one-and-one.
"We made plays down the stretch from defensive stops to people hitting big shots, people hitting free throws," said Tatum, who scored 16 points and made four steals. "We really executed down the stretch like a veteran team."
This game was shaping up in similar fashion. SIU shuffled players in and out because of fouls, although only forward Matt Shaw fouled out. The Salukis were 1-for-8 from outside the arc in the second half as the Bears switched between man-to-man and zone defenses.
Lowery said he tried to reassure his team during time-outs.
"I didn't want them to feel like things weren't going their way," he said. "I just wanted to make sure they knew I had confidence in them to make plays."
Although he was only 5-of-18 from the field, Tatum scored seven of SIU's final nine points.
"A couple of times, he got frustrated, but we just made sure we kept him calm," Lowery said of his senior guard. "He was big-time. I told him what he was going to do. I don't know if he believed me or not. I just told him I had confidence in him, and he stepped up and really made plays."
Although the Bears made 18 turnovers, Hinson said he wasn't disappointed in his team's effort against the nation's fourth-best scoring defense.
"I knew it would be ugly as all get-out," Hinson said. "If you take away the score off this stat sheet, other than the 18 turnovers, I'm pretty happy."
Lowery was pleased with a defensive effort that held Missouri State to 37.8 percent shooting and limited leading scorer Blake Ahearn to seven points on 2-of-8 shooting.
"We really felt we just had to stifle them each possession and make each chance for them to shoot a tough one," Lowery said.
"You have to give (Southern Illinois) credit," said Bears' guard Tyler Chaney, who led his team with 13 points. "They definitely disrupt you at times."
With a one-game lead over second-place Creighton and two games remaining in Missouri Valley Conference action for both schools, the Salukis "magic number" to win the conference championship and #1 seed in the MVC Tournament is down to one -- either a Southern Illinois win at Indiana State or home against Evansville, or a Creighton loss at Illinois State or home to Wichita State.