Nov. 12, 2012
By Tom Weber
NEW ORLEANS, La. - Perhaps the obituary of Saluki Basketball is a bit premature.
Picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference this season, Southern Illinois opened its regular season with a dominating 72-55 win at New Orleans on Monday night, christening the Barry Hinson era with a road victory.
Jeff Early scored a career-high 27 points, and the Salukis (1-0) demonstrated superior speed and athleticism in an entertaining, if sometimes ragged, up-tempo game.
With little in the way of front-court size, SIU's formula for success this year -- at least until Dantiel Daniels returns from injury -- will be to utilize its quickness as much as possible. Southern swiped the ball on defense 13 times and scored 27 points off of turnovers, including 18 points in transition.
A full-court battle played into the hands of the explosive Early, who slashed and dashed to the basket, surpassing his previous career-best of 18 points. He added a career-high 12 rebounds to boot.
Playing the power forward position, the 6-foot-1 Early was a force on both ends of the court, diving for loose balls, taking four charges and holding UNO leading scorer Lovell Cook to nine points.
"I can't remember a player dominating a game single-handedly as much as Jeff did tonight," Hinson said. "Everyone has been wanting to know about that hybrid (forward) spot. How can Jeff Early play in that spot and be effective? Tonight, you saw how he can be effective."
The Salukis took control from the opening tip, scoring the first 11 points and leading 26-6 after a breakaway dunk by Early at the 11:28 mark.
The Privateers (1-1), a program that was nearly washed away by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is back on its feet and playing a mostly Division I schedule this season. Yet they had no answer for Southern's quickness. They committed 27 turnovers and were harassed into shooting 35 percent from the field.
SIU led by 16 at halftime and by as many as 24 in the second half. UNO came as close as 13 points on four occasions in the final 10 minutes, but never seriously threatened a comeback.
In addition to Early's career night, Wyoming transfer Desmar Jackson scored 17 points in his first game in nearly two years. Forward Antonio Bryer, making his first career start, made all four of his field goal attempts and finished with a career-best eight points.
In another piece of good news, Hinson said Daniels could have played in the game, if needed. The sophomore stayed loose by riding the stationary bike behind Southern's bench. Two weeks ago, Hinson thought Daniels might be out for the season with a groin pull, but now it is likely he will play Saturday in the home opener against Benedictine-Springfield University.
To be sure, SIU has areas for improvement. Its 28 turnovers against UNO were the most since committing 29 at Tulsa on Jan. 2, 1999. Southern was also 1-of-8 from the 3-point line and committed 25 personal fouls.
None of those stats could overcome the good feeling generated by a victory that snapped a seven-game losing streak and eight-game road losing streak dating back to last season.
"The best moment was walking into the locker room and seeing the faces of the kids," Hinson said. "This program has taken a lot of bumps, and we're going to take some bumps this year, but to go on the road and win by the margin we did tonight, and to basically dominate every category statistically, I'm really proud of our guys."
"I think I'll resign right now as the only undefeated coach in school history," Hinson joked.