Monday, December 11, 2006

Salukis Survive Toppers

When Egyptian dogs and Big Red Blobs collide, something wonderful has to happen. Coming into the contest, Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky both had just one loss on their otherwise pristine resumes. SIU had a tough overtime loss to Arkansas on Thanksgiving Day and WKU was walloped by Florida on November 25. These are two teams are expected to be playing in the NCAA Tournament in March. This match up had a lot going for it and it did not disappoint.

It was widely understood that the winner of this game would be the team that dictated the pace and terms of the contest. The Salukis came into Diddle and set their methodical pace right out of the gate. They rolled up a 33-17 lead with under five minutes to play in the first half with some blistering shooting in addition to their ballyhooed half-court defense (If there is a team with better half-court defense than SIU, I have yet to see them.). WKU responded behind a raucous crowd and some demonic D of their own to storm back and actually take a one-point lead late in the game. Ironically, they never truly pushed SIU out of their comfortable tortoise pace during this run. The Toppers chipped away by letting All-American candidate Courtney Lee do this thing: read, score the ball. He did it from Three, with stop and rise mid-range jumpers, with gliding forays to the rim, and with one of the filthiest follow-up dunks in the history of humankind.

A comeback from 16 down, a seething crowd in a foamy frenzy, and a team with depth is too much for most road teams to overcome. But SIU calmly regrouped and do what championship teams do. Senior PG Jamal Tatum hit a fade-away 16-footer with a defender draped all over him as the shot clock expired. Senior 2G Tony Young saved a ball from going out of bounds that led to a Saluki threeball. Tatum sank critical free throws down the stretch. Ballgame.

The young Toppers undoubtedly learned a lot in this game. While this loss stings, it is a loss that should pay dividends as the season wears on. SIU is a team that should be carefully watched this season. It will become easier to keep tabs on them because they likely will have little numbers next to their name this week. If their outside shooting holds up, the sky is the limit. More on Saturday's WKU/SIU tilt here, here, and here.

It's finals week for most of the country, which means fewer games and a lot more grading (for me, at least). The GOI is going to be sparse this week. There is a big Saturday coming up. More on that later this week.