SIU's men's basketball team got the first of what it hopes are many games "back" Tuesday night at Drake.
The Bulldogs beat the Salukis 70-67 in early January when Armon Fletcher's potentially-tying 3-pointer from the top of the key hit the window and bounced off the rim as time expired. SIU trailed by double digits in the final seven minutes before roaring back at SIU Arena.
Tuesday in Des Moines, SIU blew a seven-point halftime lead in the opening four minutes, but rallied for a 78-67 win with an 11-0 run to end the game.
Aaron Cook led SIU with 18 points, including two big layups on back-to-back possessions late in the game, and center Kavion Pippen had 14 points, five rebounds, two steals and a block in 27 minutes. Reed Timmer led all scorers with 22 points for Drake, which lost its third straight game and fourth in its last five.
Here are three more things we learned from Tuesday's win:
No. 1 — Three pillars of Saluki offense beginning to develop
Even without Thik Bol, and Jonathan Wiley, and Eric McGill, SIU's offense still features the three pillars we all thought it would have this season. Pippen has become a one-man wrecking ball that teams have to consider double-teaming, which is opening up SIU's shooters on the outside and their ability to drive the basketball. Pippen had 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, SIU made 7 of 20 3-pointers (35 percent) and made 13 of 18 at the free-throw line.
Four players reached double figures, and SIU shot 50.9 percent from the field for the game (29 of 57). The Salukis made 15 of 31 from the field in the first half (48.4 percent), just missing their sixth straight half of 50 percent or better shooting. They made 14 of 26 from the field in the second half (53.8 percent), with only 8 3-point attempts.
That was with starting point guard Marcus Bartley drawing his fourth foul 45 seconds into the second half on a questionnable call, and Pippen joining him on the bench with 10:10 to play.
"We had to fight through a lot of stuff tonight," SIU coach Barry Hinson said after the game. "At the 4-minute mark, we just blatantly challenged 'em. We, including the head coach, lost our composure tonight on a few calls, and I can't let my emotions get the best of me. That's the most worked up I've been, I think, probably in three or four years, and I need to be able to control my emotions a little better, and in doing so, I think our players got to that point.
"So, at the 4-minute mark, we just said 'Hey, it's all about us.'"
Timmer's layup at the 4:19 mark tied the game at 67-all, and turned out to be Drake's last points. The Bulldogs turned it over three times the last four minutes, one on a bizarre drop by Graham Woodward with 50 seconds to go, and missed their last six shots. Woodward dribbled up-court, and stopped, apparently confused by what he saw in transition, and dropped the ball. Sean LLoyd picked it up on his way downcourt for a one-handed slam dunk that secured the victory.
"Obviously we're very disappointed in the outcome of the game," Drake coach Niko Medved said. "You gotta give Southern a lot of credit. You knew they'd be ready to play, and I thought we were, too. I thought we had an edge, and it was a hard, hard fought game, and, obviously, tied with four minutes to go. We played hard, but I thought, clearly, we didn't make enough plays."
No. 2 — Salukis were highly motivated for fourth straight win
You and I watched it the first time around at SIU Arena. SIU's team had just learned Bol was probably out for the season hours before its first game against Drake, and although that's a pitiful excuse for playing poorly, it clearly affected its play that day.
The Salukis came roaring back in the final seven minutes and had a chance to take the lead in the final 60 seconds, but Fletcher missed an open 3. Nearly a month later, SIU seems to understand its roles better, has gotten in sync with rotations, and continues to defy reality with a six or seven-man rotation. Tuesday the Salukis played hard for more than seven minutes and pulled away from a tough, and veteran, Bulldogs squad in front of a nice crowd of 3,198 fans.
Consider the Saluki Train officially rolling.
"I knew last year we came in here and lost one. We finally got it back," said Cook, who remembered the Salukis' loss in Des Moines last season when they led by five in the final seconds, went to overtime and lost. "We owed them one, and it feels good to have four in a row."
SIU won its fourth straight game for the first time since January 2016.
No. 3 — Cook clutch in back-to-back road wins
There is not much room for error with a seven-man rotation (eight with Brendon Gooch), but these Salukis seem to have found an edge even when things don't go well.
Cook missed three of his first four shots Tuesday night and nine all together in 33 minutes, but came up with three of the biggest baskets of the night for the Salukis. His 3-pointer with 5:14 to go gave SIU a 67-65 lead shortly after De'Antae McMurray put Drake ahead with two free throws. The sophomore guard missed a 3 that might have put his team up five, but came back with a huge steal of Timmer on a drive into the lane and converted two driving layups to push the lead to six in the final two minutes.
Cook stayed off Timmer as he drove the left side of the lane until he picked up his dribble to go up for the shot. On Timmer's right side, Cook got his hands on the ball as it came up and stripped the senior guard near the baseline. Everyone in the building wanted a foul, of course, but none came. SIU scored the final 11 points to pick up its third road win in conference play and fourth overall.