Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

It’s been imperceptible.

Yet, sometime in the past two weeks my attitude toward the SIU men’s basketball team has changed.

For the past several years the Salukis have had a penchant for losing close games, sometimes in creative ways. SIU fans are familiar with the scenario. The team would play well for 36 minutes, carry a five-point lead into the final four minutes and then find a way to lose the game.

Usually it was nothing dramatic. Maybe a miss on the front end of a one-and-one to give the opponents an opening. Or, a Saluki player would drive the baseline and step on the end line for a critical turnover.

And, sometimes things would happen that would be beyond the team’s control. An opponent’s missed 3-pointer would carom over the top of several Salukis in good position for a rebound. Given a second opportunity, the opposing team would cash in.

It felt like the team was snake bitten, like the hidden hand of karma was engineering one disappointing loss after another.

For the past few years, in the early point of this season, Saluki fans would keep an eye on the scoreboard clock and when the time ticked below 4:00 they’d wonder, “What’s going to happen tonight?”

That was then.

The Salukis are currently in the midst of a five-game winning streak … the first time SIU has won five straight Missouri Valley Conference games since the 2006-07 season.

Make no mistake about it, none of these wins have come easily. The 64-53 win over UNI that started the streak was tougher than the final margin indicates. The Salukis then defeated Indiana State by five points at home, took a two-point win at Missouri State and another deceptive 11-point victory at Drake.

The last win was Saturday night’s 65-59 win over Valparaiso. The Salukis didn’t take the lead for good until the final 45 seconds. SIU certainly wasn’t on top of its game against the Crusaders, but still managed to find a way to win.

There are moments the Salukis are brilliant – Aaron Cook’s effort against Indiana State or Kavion Pippen’s extraordinary effort against Valparaiso. There are times the Salukis have been heroic – Armon Fletcher’s huge trey against Valpo.

These Salukis have discovered grit – Tyler Smithpeters grabbing big rebounds down the stretch in almost every recent game or Sean Lloyd making lay-ups in heavy traffic.

Winning streaks are fragile – the Salukis have a road game at Illinois State on Thursday. But, you have to give this team props for the way it has played in the last two weeks.

Pulling out victories in the closing minutes, closing seconds, of games is the mark of a confident team.

Confidence won’t guarantee future victories. But, confident teams don’t beat themselves. Confident teams make plays when it matters most. That’s exactly what happened Saturday night when the Salukis did not play well – when it mattered, they found a way to win.

Confidence means the program has turned a corner. Now, it’s a matter of seeing whether victories follow.


On Twitter: @LesWinkeler​


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