There is one topic that is the butt of many jokes, the place to turn to when there is nothing left to be said, the weather. Here in the Midwest we like to tell people if you don't like the weather, just wait 10 minutes and it'll change. So as I departed Cape Girardeau for a few hours to take in a game at SIU Arena between the Salukis and the Purple Aces of Evansville, I too was staring into the clouds. Along the way through some of the most rural parts you can find here in the country, as mile after mile passed no grand idea came to mind for this game. Conference play does that to you, with all the familiarity is breeds, it can sometimes feel monotonous as we've been there/done that already. Then those same clouds just continued to get darker and darker, until a fine mist turned into a full blown shower. It seemed appropriate heading towards Carbondale and SIU as they've fallen on hard times of late that it just kept getting darker and darker, or maybe those clouds were for Evansville, a team that hadn't won in Carbondale since the early 2000s and perhaps it was a sign that another UE loss was on the horizon. Either way, that nice soaking rain quelled back into a fine mist as the shadow of SIU Arena came into view, a perfect day for a game.
The SIU Arena went through a massive overhaul a few seasons ago. As it was my first visit in person to the building, it was nice to take a lap around the concourse areas, taking in all the pictures of former players and coaches, names from journeys not so long ago, yet so distant in our memories. Sections of these murals were dedicated to former Saluki and Hall of Famer Walt Frazier as well as the trip College Gameday made to Carbondale. Inside the arena itself, you see the same reference in another mural to the three Sweet Sixteen teams SIU has had (1977, 2002, 2007) as well as the 8 NBA players who played their college careers at SIU.
Once the floor cleared of the Salkui Shakers, dancing today with the extra special guests, their mothers, the guys who hoped to add their names to the storied Salkui tradition took the floor. The Salukis jumped out early, getting the ball inside and running off to a 6-0 lead. Evansville coach Marty Simmons was not pleased early, getting a bench warning from the officials before his Purple Aces could get on the board. The rest of the first half was more of the same, SIU getting good looks inside while locking down on defense before taking a halftime lead, 34-23.
One of the great things about each of these schools are the connections they have within the community. SIU is the school in Carbondale, and although Evansville boasts a D-II school for the last 50 years on the west side of town, both have unique tradition that many of the locals who have lived there for generations have followed. At the half, SIU honored 6 former Salukis by inducting them into the Saluki Hall of Fame. Honorees hailed from golf, volleyball, track, and football, along with two former men's basketball players. These are just a few of the people who built the tradition of excellence that is displayed along the walls in the murals at SIU Arena.
Once the second half began, Evansville got back to doing what they've done all season after falling behind early. They scraped their way back into it on the defensive end by getting a number of stops while the offense began to pick up, slowly chipping into the early 13-point lead SIU opened up after getting the first basket of the second half. When Kenny Harris hit a pair of free throws with around 2:00 minutes to play, Evansville found itself back even for the first time since tip-off, tied at 52. A tense last two minutes saw the defense shine as Evansville got one last chance to break the tie and, with only a second's difference between the shot clock and game clock, milked the clock down to take a final shot to escape with their first lead and the victory. Everyone in the gym knew UE was going to try to get it to Colt Ryan and have him make a play, including his defender Jeff Early. Early stepped in and stole the attempted hand-off to Ryan, drove the length of the floor and was fouled on his lay up attempt. After hitting the first, UE had one more chance with two seconds to play, down by one. The baseball pass found Ryan streaking down the right sideline, but his heave from about 35 feet hit harmlessly off the glass. SIU led all the way in the 53-52 victory.
Maybe those clouds were an omen to both squads. Neither put on a great display of basketball, and with the loss it seemed that UE (6-7 in The Valley) might be on the outside looking in along with SIU (5-8 in The Valley) in avoiding Thursday and perhaps more importantly, seeing the two runaways Creighton or Wichita State in the quarterfinals if they are lucky enough to survive Thursday. They are two of the teams that are in a cluster between 3-9 in the league, with ties at each level with only two games separating this group with only five conference games to play. Get out your Valley tiebreaker manual, this could get interesting.
at SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 53, EVANSVILLE 52 02/04/2012
EVANSVILLE 11-12 (6-7) -- C. Ryan 4-11 3-4 13; D. Holmes 4-7 0-0 9; R. Sawvell 0-1 1-2 1; T. Taylor 2-4 0-0 4; N. Cox 3-9 0-0 7; K. Harris 2-5 6-8 10; L. Jones 3-7 2-2 8; R. Cesnulevicius 0-0 0-0 0; J. Nelson 0-0 0-0 0; J. Moore 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-44 12-16 52. SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 8-16 (5-8) -- D. Daniels 4-5 3-4 11; M. Seck 5-8 0-0 10; J. Early 4-13 5-9 14; K. Goff 0-1 2-2 2; K. Brown-Surles 1-6 1-2 3; T. Lindsay 3-7 0-0 7; T. Setty 1-2 2-2 4; H. Whitt 1-2 0-0 2; J. Bocot 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-44 13-19 53.
Three-point goals: EVAN 4-11 (D. Holmes 1-3; C. Ryan 2-5; N. Cox 1-3), SIU 2-12 (K. Brown-Surles 0-4; J. Early 1-4; K. Goff 0-1; T. Lindsay 1-3); Rebounds: EVAN 21 (C. Ryan 5), SIU 31 (M. Seck 11); Assists: EVAN 15 (D. Holmes 3), SIU 11 (K. Brown-Surles 4); Total Fouls -- EVAN 18, SIU 16; Fouled Out: EVAN-None; SIU-None.