A seven-game winning streak has Southern Illinois at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference. To stay there, they have to take care of business on the road.
The 16th-ranked Salukis open a stretch of three straight road games Tuesday when they visit Missouri State.
Southern Illinois (21-5, 12-3 MVC) moved up five spots in the latest AP poll after an impressive 72-68 home win over Creighton on Saturday to take over sole possession of first place in the conference.
The Salukis are just one spot away from the school’s highest ranking ever, achieved when they were 15th in the March 1, 2004 poll.
Southern Illinois has benefited from a favorable schedule during its seven-game winning streak, winning five games at home.
Things will change quickly, though, for the Salukis, who have just one more home game before the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis on March 1.
After visiting the third-place Bears (19-7, 10-5), Southern Illinois plays 13th-ranked Butler in Saturday’s non-conference ‘Bracketbuster’ game. The Salukis then travel to Indiana State before closing the regular season at home against Evansville.
The Salukis had lost three straight road games before getting wins against the Bluejays and Wichita State during their current winning streak.
They have also lost two straight, and six of their last eight at Springfield, Mo., where the Bears are 11-2 and have outscored their opponents by an average of 19.0 points in those games.
Southern Illinois won’t have too much to worry about on its road swing, though, if it continues to shoot like it did against Creighton. The Salukis shot a season-high 65.0 percent, including a school-record 85.7 percent (12-of-14) from the field in the second half.
“That was crazy,” junior Matt Shaw said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Shaw finished with a team-high 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting for Southern Illinois, which also received a gutsy performance from leading scorer Jamaal Tatum.
Tatum, who was named to the MVC preseason all-conference team, scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting three days after a deep thigh bruise limited him to six minutes and three points in a home victory over Bradley.
“I don’t care if I had to come up with some home remedy and tie a shoelace around it,” Tatum said. “I definitely felt I would let my teammates down if I didn’t play.”
Tatum, who is averaging 14.2 points, had 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and made all four of his 3-pointers in the Salukis’ 76-56 win over Missouri State on Jan. 13. Randal Falker scored a season-high 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting in that game, and Southern Illinois had its second-best shooting performance of the season, connecting on 58.1 percent of their shots.
The Bears are the second-highest scoring team in the Valley, averaging 75.7 points, but matched their season low in their loss to the Salukis last month.
Missouri State defeated Northern Iowa 62-58 on Saturday to win its fifth straight game. It has not won six straight conference games since winning seven in a row Jan. 22-Feb. 12, 2005.
Leading scorer Blake Ahearn scored 19 points, and made 4-of-6 of his 3-pointers against the Panthers.
“The guys found me early and got my confidence going,” Ahearn said. “It makes it easy when you have so many guys who can score points.”
With 18 points, Ahearn was the only Bear to score more than eight points in the first game between the teams.
Missouri State has won three straight games over ranked opponents, including a 66-64 victory over then-No. 7 Wisconsin on Nov. 24, and a 80-74 win over the 15th-ranked Salukis in the semifinals of the 2004 MVC tournament.