EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP)—When Evansville gave Southern Illinois’ Stetson Hairston some room Wednesday night, he took advantage.
Evansville closely guarded the Salukis’ other perimeter players. So Hairston hit 4 of 5 shots from 3-point range and No. 20 Southern Illinois clinched its third straight Missouri Valley Conference title with its 13th consecutive victory, 84-69.
Hairston finished with a career-high 23 points for Southern Illinois (21-2, 15-0 MVC). Darren Brooks scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half for the Salukis, who have three conference games remaining.
“I was just taking my time,” said Hairston. “Darren was in foul trouble and they were daring me to shoot. They let me get going, and I can hit them.”
Southern Illinois’ 13-game winning streak is the school’s longest since the 1966-67 team, led by Walt Frazier. That team won its last 19 games in finishing 24-2 and taking the National Invitation Tournament title.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Salukis coach Matt Painter said. “They really fought. It was tough for us.”
Added Hairston: “I knew we had to get this game and get the championship. We all stepped up, and it was a team win.”
Clint Cuffle led the Purple Aces (5-18, 4-11) with 20 points and Deywane Lee added 16.
Southern Illinois went on a 19-2 run over a period of eight minutes in the first and second halves. It scored eight consecutive points twice for the largest lead of the game, 54-35, with 13:51 remaining.
The Aces got within 69-60 on a three-point shot by Kyle Anslinger with 4:24 left. But Evansville missed three shots under the basket before Hairston scored on a three-point play when he was fouled on a layup and made the free throw. That left the Salukis ahead 71-60 with 3:13 left, and Evansville did not threaten the rest of the way.
Evansville led 20-17 and held the Salukis scoreless for four minutes in the first half. But Southern Illinois outscored the Aces 22-13 in the final nine minutes of the half for a 39-33 lead at the break.
“We just talked about the first five minutes of the second half during halftime,” Painter said. “We’ve had a lot of tough games on the road lately, and we wanted to get a substantial lead to make them fight back.”
Evansville shot 42 percent from the field in the first half, but was forced into nine turnovers, seven on steals. For the game, the Aces turned over the ball 16 times and the Salukis had 13 steals.
“Their toughness and confidence and depth, they’ve got it all covered,” Evansville coach Steve Merfeld said. “With their style of play, they can get away with some things defensively. Physically, they beat you up.”
Southern Illinois has won 11 of the last 12 in its series with Evansville.