DES MOINES — SIU's quest for its first 3-0 start in the Missouri Valley Conference in three years ended in the opening 20 minutes at Drake on Tuesday night.
The Bulldogs scored the opening 10 points at the Knapp Center, led by 21 points at the break and withstood a Saluki rally for an 82-70 victory. Drake (12-4, 1-2 MVC) scored the most points against SIU in its three league games and did it with some unlikely heroes.
Sophomore guard Noah Thomas nearly had his career-high at the half with 13 points, and finished with 24. Forward Nick McGlynn added 19 points, 10 of them in the first half, when the Bulldogs led 43-22.
"That first 20 minutes might have been our best half of basketball of the year," Drake coach Darian DeVries said. "We were focused, and we were hungry to try to get a win. We shared the ball, offensively, and we were tough and gritty, defensively. It gave us a nice lead there in the first half, and, ultimately, that was enough to get us to the finish line."
SIU (9-7, 2-1) trailed 51-28 early in the second half but got within nine off Eric McGill's tip-in at the 2:21 mark. Armon Fletcher came off the bench in his first appearance since Dec. 5 against Saint Louis because of a suspension, and scored 21 points in his first 24 minutes. Fletcher finished with 21 on 9-of-13 shooting in 28 minutes.
McGill had 17 points and Kavion Pippen had 12, but it turned out to be too little, too late for SIU. Darius Beane, who had seven points and tied McGill for the team lead with six rebounds, converted a driving layup to get the Salukis within 10 with 8:32 to go.
Aaron Cook came up with a great defensive play at the other end, blocking Tremell Murphy's baseline layup attempt to get the ball back. Pippen was called for traveling, however, to give the ball back to Drake, and Brady Ellingson canned one of the Bulldogs' 13 3-pointers to push the lead back to 13.
"We were giving up 3s like we did in the first half, and they were really scoring at will," McGill said. "I think our offense got us back in the second half, but their defense got them the win."
McGill's tip-in pulled SIU within nine with 2:21 to play (75-66), but Thomas got by his man and found Ellingson for another triple to end the threat. Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 163-pound sophomore guard who had to step into Nick Norton's role as the starting point guard in Drake's last game against Loyola, had four assists, four turnovers and a steal in 37 minutes. Norton, a graduate transfer from UAB that was leading the Valley in assists last week, tore his ACL in the Bulldogs' loss to Evansville.
Against the top field goal percentage defense in the league (SIU entered the game tied with Bradley for the lead at 41 percent), the Bulldogs canned 29 of 53 from the field (54.7 percent) and 13 of 25 behind the arc. It was Drake's 10th game this season with 10 or more 3s.
SIU coach Barry Hinson tried to warn his team before the game Drake would come out determined not to start the conference season 0-3. He was unable to rally the troops after the Bulldogs jumped out to a 22-9 advantage less than 12 minutes into the game.
"We settled down a little better and our guys did a better job of doing what we asked and executing, but the game was lost in the first five minutes of this game," Hinson said. "I told the team before we started 'They're 0-2. We're going to get their best shot. Don't think for one moment they're not going to play.' They really took it to us."