CARBONDALE — Right before he walked off the court at the Orleans Arena on Saturday night, SIU men's basketball coach Barry Hinson tied up his squad's non-conference schedule with a five-word bow.
"One day at a time," he said.
The Salukis (8-5) closed their 74-64 win over Duquesne in Las Vegas with a 9-0 run without two starters and backup guard Eric McGill. Sophomore Aaron Cook, one of the stars of SIU's short-handed run to eight wins in just over 43 days, banked a high-arcing floater off the window and down to start the run. Tyler Smithpeters followed with a steal at the other end and hit 1 of 2 free throws after he was fouled to stretch the lead to four in the final minute.
Sean Lloyd, who was named to the all-tournament team after averaging 17 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in the four games, added two free throws and Armon Fletcher added four to seal the win. The Salukis found out they'd be without starting point guard Marcus Bartley hours before tipoff Saturday, and still ended Duquesne's seven-game winning streak.
"It was a must-win for us," Smithpeters said. "We wanted to go into conference play with a win, and I think the biggest thing is just staying positive and just trying to get everybody on the same page."
That has been easier said than done this season. Without Bartley for the first six games, Cook more than tripled his scoring output from last season (3.1 points per game last season) to 10.1 per game. Junior college center Kavion Pippen, who expected to play behind starting forward Thik Bol, played like a fifth-year senior in his first Division I games. Pippen blocked 25 shots in 13 games, the second-most of anyone in the Missouri Valley Conference, and finished the non-conference as SIU's third-leading scorer (12.1 points per game) and top rebounder (5.3 per game).
Junior forward Rudy Stradnieks, who played only 249 minutes all last season, was one of SIU's biggest surprises during the non-conference season. The 6-foot-9, 229-pound forward had 11 points off the bench in the loss to Nevada and made 4 of 5 from the field in the win over Duquesne. Stradnieks played 10 or more minutes in 10 of SIU's 13 games as Pippen's backup and is shooting a career-best 53.1 percent from the field (26 of 49) and career-best 77.8 percent at the free-throw line (7 of 9).
Smithpeters played one of his best games as a Saluki in his first start since the second game of the year. The Harrisburg native made 2 of 5 from the 3-point line against Duquesne, 2 of 8 from the field, and scored nine points. Smithpeters blocked his fourth shot of the season by coming from behind to get Dukes forward Jordan Robinson and came up with the big steal in the final minute.
"That's why I started him. He is just getting better and better," Hinson said. "We weren't used to our rotations, and we're used to our rotations now. I'm excited. I'm anxious to go into conference play now. We got a group of guys that are really tuned in. I know it's like a broken record, but we gotta get our guys back. We gotta get healthy. In order to do something special, we have to have Thik and we have to have Marcus on the floor.
"It just helps us so much, and that's my biggest concern. We gotta get those guys back."
SIU opens conference play at Northern Iowa (8-4) on Thursday night in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The Salukis are 0-11 lifetime at the McLeod Center, which opened in 2007.