Southern Illinois 65, Saint Mary’s 56
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—After a restless night spent trying to shake away memories of their last two NCAA tournament games, Stetson Hairston and Darren Brooks did their part to keep Southern Illinois from another nightmare-inducing loss.
Hairston broke a late tie with three free throws, then followed with a 3-pointer and Brooks drove for the next two baskets, giving the Salukis the push they needed to get past Saint Mary’s 65-56 Friday in the first round of the Chicago Regional.
Southern Illinois (27-7) advanced for the first time since 2002, when Hairston and Brooks were freshmen on a club that made the regional semifinals. The Salukis were knocked out by one point in the opening round the last two years, missing shots at the buzzer both times, including a short, off-balance jumper by Brooks last March.
“I tossed and turned all night thinking about it,” Hairston said. “I probably got a few hours of sleep.”
Brooks watched television to try clearing his mind Thursday night, but it didn’t work.
“I was thinking about the game, ‘We can’t lose. We can’t lose,”’ he said. “I finally fell asleep, and I woke up and it was the same thing.”
Next up for seventh-seeded SIU is second-seeded Oklahoma State (25-6), a 63-50 winner over Southeastern Louisiana earlier Friday. That matchup against a Big 12 heavyweight playing practically in its backyard gives the Salukis of the Missouri Valley Conference another chance to shed their label of being pretty good for a mid-major.
Southern Illinois already is getting some respect, as evidenced by their top-tier seed. Wanting to prove they deserved it, the Salukis came out with an incredible show of energy and intensity: an early 14-0 run fueled by nine turnovers, including eight straight possessions by the 10th-seeded Gaels (25-9).
Guard E.J. Rowland said they were been warned about SIU’s defense and saw it on film, but “it was a lot different in person.” That explains why he made three straight turnovers in a 58-second span during that early blitz.
SIU forced a total of 20 turnovers, five apiece from all-West Coast Conference selections Daniel Kickert and Paul Marigney. Kickert scored 16 points, but made just one of his last eight shots as the Salukis forced him into uncomfortable spots. Marigney scored 12 points, five below his average.
“We expected them to wear down,” Marigney said. “But they didn’t.”
Saint Mary’s still made things interesting—twice. And both times, Brooks and Hairston showed why coach Chris Lowery calls them “my security blanket.”
When the Gaels got within 35-30 early in the second half, Brooks made a layup and Hairston followed with a 3-pointer as the lead grew to 12.
Then Saint Mary’s reserve Brett Collins scored 11 of his team’s next 13 points, capped by a scooping layup that bounced around the rim and fell, tying the game at 47 with 6:32 left.
Hairston tried snapping the tie with a 3-pointer, but was fouled by Collins. He hit all three free throws, then made a 3-pointer soon after. Once Brooks made a running one-hander in the lane and followed with a baseline layup, the Salukis had the cushion needed to finally end their first-round jinx.
“I’m a senior so I have to do those things,” said Hairston, who led SIU with 13 points.
Brooks had 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Matt Shaw added 12 points and seven rebounds, and reserve Randal Falker was 4-for-4 for eight points.
The Gaels head back to their California campus with a lot to be proud of, something Marigney knows best of all. A fifth-year senior, he’s the only holdover from a squad that went 2-27 in 2001, losing its last 20.
Coach Randy Bennett took over in 2002 and the program has improved every year, going from nine wins to 15 to 19, and now to 25 and the first NCAA tournament appearance in eight years.
“We have to keep our situation in perspective and realize how far along we’ve come,” Bennett said.