Dec. 17, 2008
By Tom Weber
DEKALB, Ill. - In danger of falling three games below .500 for the first time in 10 years, Southern Illinois mustered its best performance of the season Wednesday, coasting to a 73-58 win at Northern Illinois.
The outcome was not in doubt, however, as the Salukis (4-5) never trailed and led the Huskies (4-7) by as many as 21 points.
SIU flashed glimpses of the qualities that have made it one of the best programs in the nation the last seven years -- tenacious defense, patient offense and clutch shooting.
Northern Illinois entered the game averaging more than 70 points per contest, but found good looks at the basket hard to come by.
"They are arguably one of the better defensive teams I've seen in a long time," said Huskies coach Ricardo Patton. "If you get by one defender, another defender is waiting behind him. If you get by him, he's got back up."
The Salukis jumped out to an 11-2 lead, as NIU began the game with four missed shots and a turnover.
"I personally think that they hand-check, and they hold," said Patton, who is in his second year of a rebuilding program at NIU. "Each player does, so it's very difficult for it to be called the entire night. It's a great way to play defense."
Northern trailed, 38-28, at halftime and shot 41 percent from field for the game.
"The way we play is frustrating for people," Mullins said. "People don't like to play us because of how physical we are."
Meanwhile, Southern had its best shooting night of the season, making 59 percent of its shots in the game. It was a team effort, as nine different players made baskets in the first half alone. Freshman guard Kevin Dillard came off the bench to spark the offense with nine of his 12 points coming in the first half.
Saluki head coach Chris Lowery was especially pleased with the play of his bench, which allowed him to rest his starters for lengthy stretches. No Saluki player clocked in more than 29 minutes.
"If we're going to have a chance to be good, those young guys are going to have to play," he said. "They took advantage of their playing time and came with energy and aggression."
Northern made a couple of runs in the second half, cutting the lead to 40-34 on a 3-pointer by Darion Anderson with 18:02 remaining. SIU responded with six-straight points, featuring layups by Ryan Hare and Tony Boyle.
Later, the Huskies trimmed the deficit to 48-41 with 15:00 to go. During the next five minutes, however, the Salukis blew the contest open with a 14-0 run. Fay had seven of the points, while Dillard, Torres Roundtree and Nick Evans also chipped in buckets.
"If we can limit people to one shot, go down and do some motion and grind-out, and then make some timely baskets like we did tonight, then we have a chance to be successful," Lowery said.
The Salukis held Anderson, who was averaging better than 30 a game in the last three outings, to just 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
"We wanted to put pressure on him on every catch, every dribble," Lowery said. "We just tried to limit his shots. Everybody guarded him. We didn't put one guy on him."
The Huskies appeared fatigued as the game wore on, as they made just 3-of-11 foul shots in the second half. At one point, guard Mike Dinunno was fouled on a 3-point shot by Wesley Clemmons, but missed all three free throw attempts.
"We wear people down, and you usually see it on the free throw line," Lowery noted.
Both Lowery and Mullins said the game should be a confidence booster for the team and perhaps a springboard for better times ahead.
"We haven't been that team that we're supposed to be," Mullins said. "This game, we kind of imposed our toughness on them."
Added Lowery, "The most important thing is we needed to get the program to do an about-face."