S. Illinois 59, Bradley 46

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ST. LOUIS (AP)—Southern Illinois was struggling entering the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, having dropped three of four.

So much for momentum.

Randal Falker’s 17 points and career-high 16 rebounds powered a 59-46 victory over Bradley in the championship game on Sunday, leading the Salukis to their fifth straight berth in the NCAA tournament.

“Man, this is the greatest,” said guard Matt Shaw, who scored 14 points. “This is what it’s all about. Not many people gave us a chance, but we did.”

Jamaal Tatum added 16 points for second-seeded Southern Illinois (22-10), which won the tournament for the first time since 1995. Chris Lowery became the first member of the Valley to win a championship as player and coach.

Lowery was the point guard for Southern Illinois’ championship teams in 1994 and ’95, and he mentioned that to his team at halftime. The Salukis made it to the final after beating Northern Iowa in overtime in the semifinals.

“I talked about playing in the tournament and what that was like, and to be able to sit back for a week and have everybody talk about you and people seeing how great you are,” Lowery said. “It’s a much better feeling than sitting on pins and needles and seeing what seed you are going to be.”

Southern Illinois is one of six Valley teams with RPI rankings of 41 or lower, with a fifth-best ranking of 38, and conference commissioner Doug Elgin said after the game he’s hopeful of getting as many as five bids—two more than the previous best. Bradley, 28th in the RPI, believes it is in strong position.

“I’m probably not well-versed enough on the process other than to think that the way this team has been playing the last three or four weeks, I find it hard to believe that we’re not one of the top 34 teams around the country,” coach Jim Les said. “It’s just going to make for a long week, I can tell you that.”

Southern Illinois started the second half with a 17-2 run and ended Bradley’s seven-game winning streak. The Salukis took the title one season after a frustrating four-year run in which they won the regular-season title but then lost in the conference tournament. Bradley hasn’t won the tournament title since 1988.

Patrick O’Bryant had 16 points for Bradley (20-10), the fifth seed, which upset top seed Wichita State in the semifinals. O’Bryant hit his first six shots, three of them dunks, but was quiet after absorbing a hard foul by Tony Young with 4 minutes to go in the first half. He had only three points and one rebound the rest of the way.

“I don’t really feel like we hit the wall,” O’Bryant said. “They just made the plays and we couldn’t make those plays. They got every rebound, every loose ball.”

The 6-7 Falker outplayed O’Bryant, who is five inches taller. He said it was a team effort.

“I didn’t shut him down, we shut him down,” Falker said. “I tried to push him off the block so we could rotate him easier.”

Marcellus Sommerville, who leads Bradley with a 15-point average, missed eight of his first nine shots and had 11 points. Tony Bennett had 11 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

Falker opened the second half with a dunk and Shaw ended the run with a jam in Southern Illinois’ dominating stretch. A 24-23 deficit became a 40-26 lead with 9:59 to go. Falker, the tournament MVP, had nine points in the run and Shaw scored six.

Bradley missed 11 of its first 12 shots in the half and scored only three points in the first 13 minutes. The Braves made a late push on a pair of 3-pointers by Bennett in a span of 15 seconds that cut the gap to 44-38, but Southern Illinois answered with eight straight free throws in the next 1:06.

“We’re a team that makes a run at some point in the game,” Les said. “Unfortunately, our run came late when we had dug ourselves such a big hole.”

The game was delayed for several minutes late in the second half when a Southern Illinois cheerleader crashed to the floor during a routine. Kristi Yamaoka was carted off on a stretcher wearing a pair of braces, but waved to the crowd.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Bradley
T. Bennett T. Bennett
4-13,  11 Pts
10 Rebs, 5 Assists
 Southern Ill.
R. Falker R. Falker
7-15,  17 Pts
16 Rebs, 2 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists