CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP)—Tony Young and the rest of No. 21 Southern Illinois were putting the finishing touches on pesky Bradley when the Saluki faithful’s chant “We want Creighton” began echoing through the arena.
The Salukis will get that showdown Saturday, with sole possession of first place in the Missouri Valley Conference on the line.
The big question: Will Southern’s top scorer be in the lineup?
Jamaal Tatum, averaging 14.5 points a game, played just six minutes in Wednesday night’s 60-50 victory over Bradley, sitting out the entire second half with a deep thigh bruise and finishing with just three points on 1-of-4 shooting.
To Saluki coach Chris Lowery, there’s little time to fret.
“We hope he’s fine,” Lowery said of Tatum, Young’s senior backcourt mate. “If not, we’ve just got to play the game.”
Young helped the Salukis manage without Tatum, scoring a season-high 25 against the Braves as Southern (20-5, 11-3) won its seventh in a row and eighth in its past nine games.
Randal Falker, the league’s reigning player of the week, added 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Salukis, who led by as many as 19 in the first half but saw its margin dwindle to five in the closing minutes before Southern pulled away.
Young closed out the scoring with a breakaway dunk for the Salukis, enjoying their first week in the Top 25 in two years. He quickly set his sights on Saturday.
Holding off Bradley “showed us a lot about ourselves, being tired and doing all the small things,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep our heads up and stay focused.”
Will Franklin had 15 points for the Braves (16-10, 7-7), whose only lead came on the first basket of the game—a layup by Matt Salley.
Zach Andrews added 11 points and 10 rebounds for Bradley, which beat the Salukis at home Jan. 10 on Franklin’s buzzer-beater.
Bradley, which was 3-of-22 from 3-point range, trailed by 15 with a little more than 9 minutes to play before peeling off a 13-3 run, cutting the margin to 52-47 with 3:32 left on an inside basket by Andrews.
But the Braves never got closer, with Southern getting two free throws apiece from Young, Matt Shaw and Bryan Mullins.
Bradley struggled from the outset, missing a variety of open 3-pointers and inside shots against a stingy Saluki defense that entered the game yielding just 55.8 points a game, fourth-lowest in the nation.
“I thought to start the game we were back on our heels,” Bradley coach Jim Les said. For most of the second half, he said, “I was proud of the effort. Prior to that, we dug ourselves too big of a hole.”
Clinging to a 11-7 lead with nearly 13 minutes left in the first half, Southern reeled off a 22-7 run over the next 10 minutes to push the margin to 33-14. Young led the way, burying four 3-pointers during the stretch.
Bradley closed to 33-22 in the half’s waning minutes, getting its final six points on free throws.
Young finished the half with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Falker added nine points.
Bradley missed nine of its 10 first-half shots from beyond the arc— finishing 30 percent from the field overall—and was outrebounded 21-11 during the opening half.
“We had some good looks,” Les said. “Sometimes, they just don’t go in.”