SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Kavion Pippen didn't have an angle to the basket on SIU's final possession Saturday at Missouri State, so Armon Fletcher gave him another option.
Fletcher, unguarded near the free-throw line, moved around Pippen's right side and turned the last assist of the night into a Saluki stunner at JQH Arena. Pippen found Fletcher on the right side of the rim, and the 6-foot-5 junior laid it up off the glass for a 79-77 lead with seven seconds to go. Bears guard Jarrid Rhodes missed a potentially-tying 3-pointer from the left side as time expired.
"Marcus (Bartley) made a great entry pass to Pip, and I saw Pip, he didn't really have an angle towards the basket," said Fletcher, who had 18 points in SIU's third straight victory. "I recognized it, and I slipped to the basket, and there was nobody there. I think it was a little bit of a late contest, and I was just worried about finishing. Pip, he's gotten way better at passing out of the post. I'm always joking around with him about his passing, but I was proud of how he played today."
The Salukis (14-9, 6-4 Missouri Valley Conference) became just the second team this season to defeat the preseason Missouri Valley Conference favorites at home and moved into a tie with Drake (12-11, 6-4) for second place in the league. North Dakota State beat the Bears in their third game of the season, 57-54.
Pippen made 8 of 12 from the field, 4 of 8 in the second half, scored 17 and tied his season-high for assists with three in 30 minutes. His short hook shot off the right block broke a 75-all tie with 45 seconds to go, but Missouri State forward Alize Johnson answered at the other end.
Johnson, the 6-9 Valley preseason player of the year, led all scorers with 29 points and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds for the Bears (15-8, 5-5).
SIU coach Barry Hinson went back to the same play with the game on the line.
"Players have to make plays. If you want to think for one moment that we coached that, we did not," Hinson said. "We called the play. The play was for K.P. We had already scored on it two times in a row, and for him to make the read, and Armon to make the cut; coach (Roy) Williams used to say this all the time at North Carolina and Kansas. 'Sometimes the guys in the little white shorts gotta make plays.'"
Five Salukis, who actually wore home whites in Missouri State's blackout game, finished in double figures. Tyler Smithpeters scored 14 points, 11 in the first half, when SIU shot 73.9 percent from the field and scored 42. Aaron Cook had 11 points and three assists and Bartley had 10 and three assists.
Rhodes scored 17 points, Ronnie Rousseau III had 13 and Jarred Dixon added 12 for Missouri State, which dropped its third straight game.
"We scored enough. We had 17 assists. We may not have had 17 assists in three games," Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. "We hit 11 3s. We played good, offensively, and, particuarly when you're down. When you're down, you can sometimes lose your composure, and I told the guys at halftime 'Hey, there's no 11-point plays,' and we did some good things. We just struggled to guard them."
Missouri State, not a great 3-point shooting team this season, made 11 of 27 behind the arc, two off its season-best. The Bears were a combined 13 of 50 in their last two games, but canned 6 of 13 in the second half in front of an announced crowd of 6,724 fans.
SIU is next at Drake Tuesday night in a battle of second-place teams.
"We deserve all of this," Fletcher said. "The stuff we've been through this season, and with the injuries and the adversity we've been through, it's about time we have a game like this to wake people up in the conference. We're not going anywhere."