Jeff Early's 31 points carries Men's Basketball past Miami University

    Desmar Jackson scored seven of his 17 points in overtime for SIU.

    Desmar Jackson scored seven of his 17 points in overtime for SIU.
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    Feb. 23, 2013

    By Tom Weber

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    CARBONDALE, Ill. - Where would this Saluki team have been today without senior Jeff Early? Head coach Barry Hinson doesn't want to know.

    The relentless 6-foot-1 power forward carried Southern Illinois on his back, scoring a career-high 31 points, including a fadeaway buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime, where SIU turned back Miami University, 74-68, in a BracketBusters matchup on Saturday.

    Early rescued the Salukis (12-16), who have won four-straight home games for the first time since 2009, from what looked like sure defeat, by giving his team a shot of pure energy. In 41 minutes, he made 11-of-17 shots from the field, snared a dozen rebounds and grabbed three steals. He played to the crowd of 5,315 by waving his arms or pumping his fists at crucial moments of the game.

    "That was a special day for Jeff Early," said Hinson. "We don't win the ballgame today, no ifs, ands or buts, unless Jeff Early is in a uniform."

    Only pride was at stake in a battle of last-place teams, and the Redhawks (8-17) could have sealed the victory at the free throw line, but instead lost for the ninth time in their last 10 outings.

    With Miami ahead, 56-54, RedHawks center Vince Legarza missed the front end of a 1-and-1, and Southern quickly called timeout with seven seconds to go. Miami had a foul to give but used it up near mid-court when Quinten Rollins grabbed Kendal Brown-Surles with four seconds remaining. That allowed SIU time for an inbounds play, in which Early drove to the left baseline and swished a 15-footer at the horn.

    "We couldn't find a way to slow down Mr. Early today," said first-year Miami coach John Cooper. "He made big bucket after big bucket, especially when they needed them."

    After Miami scored the first field goal of overtime on a jumper by Reggie Johnson, Early responded with his second 3-pointer of the night, kickstarting a 17-6 Saluki run. The 24-year-old grizzled veteran came into the game having made just 4-of-17 from 3-point land on the season, but knocked down 2-of-3 on the afternoon.

    "Today was probably the first time in the last four games where I couldn't even feel my injuries, I was so pumped up," said Early, who recorded his eighth double-double of the season. "My teammates did a great job -- they let me put them on my back. All the credit to my team for getting me the ball, having trust in me and letting me do what I do."

    In a sluggish first half for both teams, Miami went scoreless for seven minutes to fall behind by 13 points, but then used a 17-3 run to grab a 26-25 halftime advantage.

    "I thought we played extremely selfish in the first half," Hinson said. "Our two freshmen today played like ninth graders -- ooh they were awful."

    Foul trouble landed guards Kendal Brown-Surles and Desmar Jackson on the bench for SIU in the first half and disrupted the offense.

    "We're not very good when Kendal's not out there," Hinson said. "We don't have a point guard, and when Kendal's out of the game we really struggle."

    In the second half, Miami led as many as six, but Brown-Surles provided a huge turning point during a wild sequence in which the 5-foot-9 senior committed a turnover against the press, came back and blocked a layup attempt by 6-foot-11 center Drew McGhee, and then seconds later drilled a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 38-37.

    "I'm giving the look of the devil," said Hinson, regarding the turnover. "There's fire shooting out of my eye sockets, and he goes down there and blocks it, and I'm still giving him the eye-socket fireball and he hits the three. I just let him come over and sit down, I didn't holler at him."

    With the score tied, 52-52, with 4:19 remaining, the Salukis went ice cold for the next three minutes -- missing five-straight shots and committing one turnover.

    "Every once in a while the mothership comes in and takes those guys away for a moment and they just replace them with aliens that don't know how to play, then they bring 'em back," Hinson joked.

    Still, Miami could only muster a 56-52 lead during the Saluki dry spell, and Rollins missed a critical 1-and-1 with 1:31 to go.

    "We're the epitome of a program in transition," Cooper said. "We almost have to play a perfect game, and that really weighs heavy on us. I can't tell you how many games we've had like this."

    In overtime, the Salukis made 5-of-7 shots and Desmar Jackson got hot, scoring seven of his 17 points. During one sequence, he buried a deep 3-pointer, then made a steal near mid-court and scored an uncontested layup.

    "(Desmar) hasn't played well lately, hasn't had a lot of pop," Hinson said. "When he shot the three, it was probably ill-advised, but I heard Coach (Nate) Mast behind me going, 'he wants it coach, he wants it.' After it went in, I said, he can have it."

    The Salukis will be sorry to see the annual BracketBusters event, in its 11th and final year, come to an end. They improved to 8-3 all-time in the late February pairing of mid-major teams, including a 6-1 mark at home. Five times in the previous decade, a BracketBusters win helped SIU strengthen its resume for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

    Now, SIU turns its focus to Wednesday's Senior Night game against Northern Iowa -- the last home game for Early, Brown-Surles and T.J. Lindsay.

    "We have an opportunity to celebrate the career of three young men," Hinson said. "I'd really like to send these guys off with a bang. I'd like everybody to bring somebody else to the game Wednesday night. We've not been over the 6,000 mark this year and I'd like to do that for those three seniors."