CARBONDALE — Aaron Cook had 24 points and the ball in the final minute, nursing a two-point lead for SIU's men's basketball team. Indiana State never saw the biggest bucket of the game Wednesday night until it was too late.
Cook found 6-foot-5 junior guard Armon Fletcher just to the right of the rim for a layup and a foul that pushed the Salukis' lead to four points with 33 seconds to go. Fletcher missed the free throw, but SIU hung on for the 82-77 win in front of an announced crowd of 3,929 fans.
"It was just moving without the ball," said Fletcher, who cut behind his defender and appeared in the middle of a sea of blue jerseys before catching Cook's pass and laying it up. "Coach (Brad) Autry, he does a good job in practice of talking to guys when certain things happen, and just telling us to move without the ball and find open spots, and re-locate. I saw my guy that was guarding me, just turned his head and was looking towards the ball, and I just decided to backdoor it."
Many at SIU Arena thought Cook was going to take the shot after the Sycamores (10-11, 5-4 Missouri Valley Conference) climbed to within two after Brandon Murphy dunked home a putback with a minute to play. Cook, a 6-2 sophomore guard, scored 18 in the first half to stake the Salukis (13-9, 5-4) to a 12-point halftime lead. He had made 8 of 12 from the field, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point line, when he dribbled around the right side of the perimeter.
Indiana State coach Greg Lansing thought things were looking good for an opportunity to steal a road win.
"(The Salukis) are smart guys. They're good players. They're veteran players," Lansing said. "I thought they kind of played off one of our guys off the ball, getting caught just looking at the ball, trying to help to the ball instead of guarding his man. Cut across his face, an easy one to the basket. That's tough. All you get is a stop there and we got a chance to win, but they made the play and we didn't."
Cook made a free throw with four seconds to go for the final margin and finished with a career-high 25 points in 34 minutes. Fletcher had 17, and center Kavion Pippen and guard Tyler Smithpeters added nine apiece.
Jordan Barnes, a sophomore guard from St. Louis that played against Cook for years, scored 23 points in 30 minutes. His two free throws with 22 seconds to go pulled Indiana State within two, 77-75, but SIU's Marcus Bartley drew a foul and hit both free throws to push the lead back to four. Fletcher then got the Salukis the ball back when he stepped in front of Brenton Scott and drew a charge near the mid-court line.
Qiydar Davis was forced to foul Tyler Smithpeters, who hit two free throws for a six-point lead with 15 seconds left. Barnes' layup with five seconds to go was the Sycamores' final points of the night.
SIU captured back-to-back wins for the first time since late December, and now heads to Missouri State Saturday for its first game of the season against the preseason Valley favorite Bears.
"I'm happy, but I'm not satisfied," Fletcher said. "I can say that. We just want to keep winning, and hopefully we can push this streak to the third game against Missouri State, and keep this thing going into conference play. We can't get too high or too low right now, we just gotta stay level-headed."