Jeff Early scored 26 points for Southern.
March 2, 2013
By Tom Weber
DES MOINES, Iowa - Southern Illinois may be entering next week's Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as the No. 10 seed, but it will also arrive at Arch Madness as one of the hottest clubs in the league, having won six of its last eight.
In the regular-season finale on Saturday, the Salukis (14-16, 6-12) rallied from eight points down to beat Drake, 66-63, as Jeff Early made two free throws with 5.0 seconds left for SIU, and Micah Mason air-balled a 3-pointer at the buzzer for the Bulldogs (14-16, 7-11).
Southern, which snapped a 15-game conference road losing streak, will play No. 7 seed Missouri State in the play-in round in St. Louis next Thursday at 8:35 p.m. The winner will play No. 2 seed Wichita State on Friday.
In the last three weeks, Early has taken the Salukis on his back and carried them to a handful of home victories. Tonight, he delivered a critical, confidence-building road win.
"I've been losing road games since last year, and I told my guys at the hotel I feel like doing something big today," the senior forward said. "I'm just glad the ball got to me at the end."
Early scored 26 tonight -- 16 of them in the second half -- and is averaging more than 20 points per game in his last five outings. He made 11-of-19 shots from the field, and at 6-foot-1, was simply too quick for Drake's big men to guard.
Trailing, 50-42, with 12 minutes remaining, Early started a 9-0 run with a three-point play, as Southern seized momentum and put the Bulldogs on their heels.
"From that point forward in the game, we were phenomenal," Hinson said. "Every trip down the floor we guarded our tails off, and offensively we executed to perfection."
The Salukis crowded the passing lanes all night, grabbing 10 steals and scoring 18 points off of 16 turnovers.
The game was tight down the stretch. Early made a pair of driving layups to put SIU ahead, 55-52, with 7:15 remaining. Chris Hines quickly tied it on a 3-pointer. On SIU's next possession, Desmar Jackson's prayer was answered when he banked in a 3-pointer with the shot clock about to expire to put Southern back on top, 58-55, with 6:09 to go. Jackson scored 14 of his 15 points in the second half.
The most critical possession of the game came with Southern leading, 62-60, and less than a minute to go. Early hit a pull up jumper with 16 seconds remaining to give the Salukis a 64-60 lead. Although Drake's Ben Simons answered with a 3-pointer with nine seconds left, Early's free throws secured the victory.
"Ever since that Wichita game, we know what it takes to win Valley games," Early said. "This is my last year and I just want to go out with a bang. This is the best time to play the way we've been playing."
After starting the conference season 1-10, the Salukis have been on a tear the last four weeks.
"I don't think there's a lot of programs that lost six in a row, that started off the way we did in the Valley," Hinson said. "Going into the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, I don't know of another team hotter than us. That's a credit to our kids not giving up."
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