CARBONDALE — Thik Bol's season ended before it got started Sunday, and after another disappointing home loss, SIU's men's basketball team entered 2018 in search of a way to not follow him.
Bol, a 6-foot-8 senior forward who was the Salukis' top returning rebounder and top shot blocker, practiced Friday and Saturday for the first time this season after undergoing knee surgery Nov. 3 and was expected to play Sunday against Drake. When his repaired left knee, which medical staff told coach Barry Hinson would flare up a bit after Saturday's workout, got worse Sunday, he was shut down for the rest of the 2017-18 season. The Salukis were visibly shaken by the news against the Bulldogs, and after falling down 16 points in the first half, fell 70-67 after closing to within two points in the final seconds.
"We just go on and on and on," Hinson said after the game, noting forward Rudy Stradnieks missed the game with the flu, Armon Fletcher played through flu-like symptoms, and that guard Eric McGill is dealing with a broken left hand. "It's just gotten to the point where it's worn us down, and we gotta find a way to get going, but our cup runneth over right now."
Fletcher played with incredible passion for 32 minutes after running a fever earlier in the day, scoring a team-high 15 points and game-high 12 rebounds. He blocked two shots, one that saved a layup in the final minutes at SIU Arena, and missed two 3-point shots in the final 20 seconds that would have put the Salukis (9-6, 1-1 Missouri Valley Conference) ahead or tied the game.
"We just decided to play defense, but it was just too little, too late," Fletcher said. "We gave away some easy transition baskets early in the game and we weren't really guarding. It was just too little, too late. We had a helluva comeback, but things didn't go our way in the end."
Reed Timmer, a preseason first team all-conference guard, converted his first five shots and led the Bulldogs (8-7, 2-0) with a game-high 20 points. Forward Nick McGlynn, who scored 11 points in Drake's win over Bradley Thursday night, added 17 to help the Bulldogs to their first 2-0 start in league play since the 2007-08 season.
Drake led 61-49 after Cahokia native C.J. Rivers' driving layup at the 6:24 mark, but struggled to put the Salukis away. Marcus Bartley, the hero of Thursday's first win at Northern Iowa in 14 years, hit a 3-pointer from the right side of the arc to pull SIU within 11, 63-52. Sean Lloyd's transition bucket at the 3:45 mark started a 10-2 run that pulled the Salukis within five with 87 seconds to go.
The announced crowd of 4,230, the second-biggest group of the year, tried to will the team all the way back. De'Antae McMurray rolled in two free throws with 1:21 left to push the lead to seven. Lloyd converted a baseline drive to cut the lead to five, and Aaron Cook's 3-pointer from the right side pulled the Salukis within two in the final minute, but it was not meant to be.
Timmer missed a layup, opening the door for SIU, but Fletcher missed a go-ahead 3 off the left side of the rim. Graham Woodward was fouled and made 1 of 2 at the free-throw line, and Fletcher missed a 3 that would have sent the game to overtime when it hit the window but rolled off the right side of the rim at the horn.
"Clearly, we jumped on these guys, and we knew that they were going to make a run, and they did, kind of at the end of the first half, and, obviously, late," Drake coach Niko Medved said. "It's crazy how basketball works. I thought we had some opportunities and some great looks that didn't go in, kind of at that 5-6-minute mark, and we knew they were going to make one more run. But what a great win for our guys. They battled on the glass, and what's really won us these first two games in the Valley has been our defense, and that's been our Achilles heel."
Lloyd and Bartley delivered 13 points apiece, and Cook had 10 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals. Kavion Pippen made just 4 of 13 from the field but scored eight points to go with seven rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes. Forward Jonathan Wiley, also battling the flu, scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench but injured his knee in the second half. Hinson wasn't sure if Wiley would be able to go Wednesday against Evansville.
With two players down, and, potentially, another one on the shelf, the only thing Hinson did know was the Purple Aces (10-5, 0-2) were coming to town without regard for any of SIU's troubles.
"I'm frustrated. I know our fans are frustrated today. I'm really frustrated!" Hinson said. "I'm frustrated with all the stuff that's happened to these young men, and we gotta find a way to get through it. Today, we just couldn't get 'em going. And it's my job to get these guys back."