CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP)—Southern Illinois’ first game as a Top 25 team since 1976 was no sweat.
Freshman reserve Jamaal Tatum scored a career-high 19 points and the 23rd-ranked Salukis ran up season bests for points in a game, the first half and halftime lead in a 96-76 victory over Drake on Wednesday night.
“I told those guys ‘You’re ranked 23rd in the country, now go out and play like it,”’ coach Matt Painter said. “They played hard, they just kept battling.”
Painter, the first-year coach who stepped in after Bruce Weber left for Illinois, kept his players humble after the rankings came out on Monday by reminding them they’re still chasing a Missouri Valley Conference title and their third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
“Coach tried to downplay it, let us know we haven’t reached any of our preseason goals,” said center Sylvester Willis, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds. “We wanted to let people know we were for real.”
The Salukis (19-2, 13-0) displayed a dominating transition game to win their 11th straight. That is their longest winning streak in 37 years.
Southern Illinois, which led 52-29 at halftime, made a season-best 11 3-pointers.
This was the biggest point spread during the winning streak for Southern Illinois, off to the best start in conference play since Bradley was 16-0 in 1985-86. The scoring total was the school’s best since getting 101 against Evansville on Jan. 30, 2002.
“Sometimes a team will get this ranking and let up a bit,” Drake coach Tom Davis said. “There was no letup. They took it to us.”
Tatum was 5-for-7 from 3-point range for the Salukis, who were 11-for-24 overall. Darren Brooks added 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting and LaMar Owen had 13 points—all but one coming in the first half. Stetson Hairston had seven points and seven assists.
The Salukis put the game away with a 14-2 run to end the half, finished by two 3-pointers from Tatum in the final minute. The run also featured consecutive three-point plays by Owen in a span of 33 seconds.
Southern Illinois opened the gap by shooting 54 percent, outrebounding the Bulldogs 21-14 and holding them to 37.5 percent shooting.
“We’re a little better ballclub than we looked tonight,” Davis said. “Or that Southern let us look.”
Lonnie Randolph had 13 points for Drake (9-12, 5-8), which allowed its most points of the season and has lost six of its last eight. The previous best for an opponent was 83 points by Iowa State on Dec. 20.
Pete Eggers and Nick Grant each added 12 points for Drake.
Southern Illinois is in the Top 25 for the first time since Dec. 14, 1976, when it was ranked No. 18. The winning streak is the school’s best since a team led by Walt Frazier won 19 in a row in 1966-67.
“I think it’s the first time we’ve gotten ranked since I was in first grade,” Painter said. “Now we get a game under our belt while we’re ranked, and we can get back to the real race.”