ST. LOUIS — SIU's men's basketball team squeaked by Missouri State twice during the regular season. The third meeting in 2018 will have much higher stakes.
The Salukis (19-12) and Bears (18-14) meet at 6 p.m. Friday night for a spot in Saturday's Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals. SIU needed two Aaron Cook free throws with 4.1 seconds left to beat Missouri State at SIU Arena in overtime Feb. 14, 81-80, and a late Armon Fletcher layup to clip the Bears in Springfield, Missouri, 79-77.
Missouri State had chances to win or tie both games at the end of regulation. Obediah Church put back a miss just after the buzzer in the first meeting in Springfield, and Jarrid Rhodes missed a potentially-winning 3-pointer at the end of regulation at SIU Arena.
"I'm sure they'll be ready to go, getting ready for this game," Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said after his team stayed alive with an 83-79 win over Valparaiso Thursday night. "We played 'em close twice and we had our opportunities, and they beat us. Tomorrow is a new day. We gotta get our guys back, get 'em rested, and then we'll lock in on Southern Illinois tomorrow."
Alize Johnson, the preseason Valley player of the year, scored 22 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in 36 minutes. His six assists gave him the first 22-19-6 game this season in Division I men's basketball, according to BasketballReference.com. The 6-foot-9, 203-pound senior forward just missed joining former Wichita State Shocker Xavier McDaniel as the only players in MVC Tournament history to score 20 points and grab 20 rebounds in a single game.
McDaniel, who went on to star on the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA, grabbed 21 rebounds and scored 25 points against SIU in 1985.
Johnson made 8 of 18 from the field and 5 of 7 at the free-throw line to help Missouri State end a four-game losing streak. Rhodes added 20 points to give the Bears two 20-point scorers for only the second time this season.
SIU hasn't lost three straight games all season, and has won at least one game in three of its last four appearances at the MVC Tournament. History is also against Missouri State. The second seed has lost only one game in the quarterfinals since the tournament moved to St. Louis 28 years ago (the second seed is 53-1). The second seed has won 19 years in a row.
Seventh-seeded Bradley upset second-seeded Creighton in 1998 in the only loss.
Missouri State, which was picked to win the Valley, was one of the league's biggest disappointments. The Bears ended the regular season with four straight losses and became the first preseason favorite to fall into the play-in games of the Valley Tournament.
Johnson said not much of that matters now.
"We're playing for something right now," he said. "Everybody is determined to go out there and win the tournament, and like I said, it's anybody's tournament out there. Anybody can go out there and win."
Northern Iowa won the earlier game Thursday night over Evansville, 60-50, and will take on top-seeded Loyola Friday at noon in the first quarterfinal of the day.