CARBONDALE — With injuries to starting point guard Marcus Bartley and preseason all-conference forward Thik Bol, SIU’s lone exhibition game took on added importance.
The Salukis made the most of their lone exhibition, whipping Rockhurst University, 98-68.
The performance was a shot in the arm for a team that learned earlier this week that Bol would miss up to six weeks after undergoing knee surgery. The Salukis dressed just nine players against Rockhurst.
“I think it’s important for all of us,” said SIU coach Barry Hinson. “We took a hit in the gut on Wednesday. It really hurt our team. We had guys that were emotionally disturbed. I was emotionally disturbed. There were several variables tonight. We had some guys that hadn’t played Division 1 basketball before. I thought it was good for us to get off to a good start.”
The performance of Kavion Pippen, a Three Rivers Community College transfer, was particularly gratifying. At 6-foot-10, Pippen will be expected to pick up much of the inside load in Bol’s absence. Pippen scored 23 points on 11-of-13 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds.
“I don’t know important it was for me, I think it was really important for our kids to see,” Hinson said. “I think it really helped them a bunch, that all is not lost. Now, we can’t get him in foul trouble, and Rudy (Stradnieks) does some things that are different. So when we rotate Rudy in there, it’s a different game for how we’re going to play.”
Pippen admitted to feeling a few butterflies.
“I was excited, my first Division 1 game,” he said. “I was very nervous. I tried to calm down, play under control. I got kind of comfortable out there on the court.”
After scoring eight points in the first half, Pippen knocked down three shots in the first 70 seconds of the second half. Before the first media break of the second half, the Salukis increased their lead from three to 17 points.
“Coach (Brad) Autry said something on the bench at the first media timeout of the second half, 'That’s the way to answer the bell,’” Hinson said. “We challenged them at half. If we want to pull from anything tonight, that’s the thing we want to pull from. We challenged them a little bit at halftime. It wasn’t a Pentecostal tent revival or anything, but we challenged them. We got after them a little bit and they answered the bell.”
The halftime speech focused on defense.
“He just challenged us to play hard, go out there defend and get stops,” said junior guard Sean Lloyd, who put up 19 points. “I thought we made strides tonight. We can score the ball as you can see.”
In addition to Pippen’s 23 and Lloyd’s 19, Armon Fletcher had 15, Stradnieks 11 and newcomer Eric McGill 10.
Statistically, the Salukis did a lot of things right for their first outing. They committed just 11 turnovers and had 17 assists, six by newcomer Eric McGill and four by Tyler Smithpeters.
“It (SIU’s second half run) actually started with Tyler,” Hinson said. “He’s smart enough, he’s been here long enough, to know we’ve got a big guy down there on the block that can score. Tyler found him (Pippen) at the start of the second half, got him that little dunk and kind of got him jump-started. I think everybody started seeing what was going on, it got a little easier.”
The SIU lead reached 30 points with four minutes remaining to play.
That performance was just what the injury-riddled Salukis needed.
“We need everybody to come together,” Lloyd said. “We need everybody to learn how everybody plays. It was Kavion’s first game. It was (Brendon) Gooch’s first game. We have to get them acclimated to how we play.”
The Salukis open their regular season next Friday at Winthrop.