Feb. 25, 2012
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Northern Iowa made 10-of-12 free throws in the final three minutes of the game to earn a 65-61 win over Southern Illinois on Saturday and bypass the play-in game at next week's State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
With the victory, the Panthers (19-11, 9-9) secured the No. 5 seed in the tournament and will play No. 4 seed Illinois State. UNI was led by junior guard Anthony James, who score 18 points and made all eight of his free throws.
"Our coaches, our older guys, they certainly understand the standings and the importance of (not playing) a Thursday game," said UNI head coach Ben Jacobson. "We were fortunate today to hang in and win."
The Salukis (8-22, 5-13) were already locked into the No. 9 seed regardless of the outcome and will play No. 8 seed Indiana State at 6 p.m. on Thursday.
It was Senior Day at SIU and the team's two seniors -- Mamadou Seck and Justin Bocot -- led the way with 18 and 14 points, respectively. Bocot hit a 3-pointer with 52 seconds remaining to tie the game, 59-59. Unfortunately for Southern, Jeff Early was whistled for a foul on the play, after the ball went through the net, which immediately sent UNI's Johnny Moran to the free throw line.
Moran made 1-of-2 to give the Panthers a 60-59 advantage. On Southern's next possession, Bocot was fouled with 41 seconds left and had an opportunity to give Southern the lead at the free throw line. Instead, he missed the front end of a 1-and-1. The Salukis were forced to foul on the ensuing possessions.
Bocot had a last-gasp 3-point attempt ricochet off the iron with 11 seconds to go that could have tied the game.
"The disappointing thing is our seniors didn't get a chance to go out the right way," said Saluki head coach Chris Lowery. "They gave us an opportunity to win the game."
The contest featured big swings on both sides. In the first half, the Panthers went on an 11-0 run to take a 20-11 lead. Southern responded with an 18-3 run to build a 29-23 advantage. In the second half, UNI used a 14-1 run to go up 51-41, but the Salukis came right back with a 14-1 of their own to lead by three points with 3:28 left in the game.
Seck sparked the Salukis in the second half with 12 points before fouling out with less than a minute remaining. The team's leading scorer, rebounder and assist-man has carried the team on his back throughout the season.
"Mamadou is a phenomenal player and leader and does all the things we need him to do," Lowery said. "But we needed somebody at the guard spot to have leadership qualities and leadership abilities from Day 1."
Saluki freshman center Dantiel Daniels, who missed the second half on Wednesday at Drake with a bruised knee, returned to play 21 minutes. The Freshman of the Year candidate had four points and four rebounds.
"He was double-teamed every time he caught it," Lowery said. "He did a good job of kicking it out. He's a freshman and we depend on him so much, but he did the right things today."
Southern lost for the sixth-straight time, its longest streak since losing seven straight to finish the 1997 season.
"I hurt because this place is very special to me," Lowery said. "Understanding that 22 (losses) is a lot -- the most in school history -- that affects me even more than anybody in that gym or locker room. This place has given me everything -- opportunities, a degree."
Lowery said first-place Wichita State and second-place Creighton are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the MVC right now.
"If you look at the rest of the league, 9-9 was the third-best team in our league," he explained. "We can greatly improve next year with what we have and what we signed. We have a point guard coming, a great scorer sitting out and a great shooter coming. The things we desperately need right now, they're coming."