CARBONDALE — In between home wins over SIU-Edwardsville and San Jose State last season, SIU's men's basketball team lost three games to regional rivals by single digits.
An eight-point loss at Murray State, a five-point loss at Saint Louis, and then a five-point defeat at the hands of Southeast Missouri State at home on Dec. 9. The Salukis still won 20 games for the second time in the last three years, but lost any hope of an at-large bid to the NIT with those three defeats (only Saint Louis had a winning record of the bunch). They missed the postseason for the 10th straight year, and drew two of them at home this season.
Wednesday night's 61-56 win over Saint Louis, the highest NET team the Salukis have beaten this season, could be a signature win come March. And it won't matter if SIU (6-3) falls at Southeast Missouri State (5-4) tonight in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The Redhawks' best win so far is over Jacksonville (5-5), and unless they win at Florida State on Dec. 17, they might not have a better one this season.
Southeast Missouri State just happens to have beaten SIU in two out of the last three meetings, too.
"This was a huge win for us, just because they beat us last year," SIU guard Armon Fletcher said after pouring in 13 points against the Billikens. "SEMO, same situation. We're going to have a lot of fire going into that game. We need to go down there and beat those guys, as well."
The Salukis led the Billikens for more than 37 minutes Wednesday night but struggled to put the game away. SIU got some of its best free throw shooters to the line in the final three minutes, but Thik Bol missed one, Fletcher missed two, Aaron Cook missed two and Eric McGill missed two. The Salukis made 11 of 21 at the stripe.
"Aaron was out of sync all night, offensively," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "He missed two free throws. Eric has not shot free throws well here, lately. And we just haven't had a chance to be in one of those circumstances, in all honesty, and we were just kind of lackadaisical on it. But we'll figure it out."
Behind Skyler Hogan's season-high 25 points, Southeast Missouri State picked up its first true road win of the season Tuesday night at Mississippi Valley State, 77-57. Hogan, a 6-foot-5, 213-pound junior guard from Division II Embry-Riddle, sat out last season but gives the Redhawks much-needed experience, according to fourth-year coach Rick Ray. Southeast Missouri State starts one freshman, 6-8, 200-pound forward Sage Tolbert (7.3 points, 6.9 rebounds per game) and will bring three off the bench.
"He's given us some experience, and I know some people say he's played some Division II basketball, but if you look at our team, we don't have anybody that has a lot of Division I experience and he brings that to us," Ray said. "If you look at our wings, we have big, physical wings. Physically, he's able to make that transition to Division I basketball, and what's always obvious is he can really shoot the basketball. And when you have that, it provides spacing for guys to make individual plays."