EVANSVILLE, Ind. — In a game of whatever-you-can-do, I-can-do-better, SIU's Lance Jones had the last laugh at the Ford Center Wednesday night.
Playing with four fouls, the freshman guard from Evanston delivered the go-ahead runner with 39 seconds to go in overtime and sealed the Salukis' toughest win of the season at the free-throw line. Jones' two shots with 19 seconds to go pushed SIU's lead to three, and it held on for a 64-60 victory over Evansville in front of an announced crowd of 4,691 fans.
Jones scored eight of his 15 points in the extra session, and felt like he had to after turning it over six times in just over 30 minutes.
"Just, my teammates encouraged me," Jones said. "I was getting really frustrated with the careless turnovers I was making, they told me to just keep my head up, and just go out there and play my game."
SIU (14-10, 8-3 Missouri Valley Conference) won its sixth straight game and pulled into sole possession of second place in the league with seven games to go. Loyola, which entered Wednesday's game at Indiana State tied with the Salukis for second place, lost by a stunning 29 points in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The Salukis nearly fell on the road, too, blowing a four-point lead in the final minute of regulation leading to overtime. Evansville's K.J. Riley hit two free throws to pull the Purple Aces (9-15, 0-11) within two with 28 seconds left, and sent the game to overtime with a putback basket with about four seconds left.
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Jones gave the Aces a chance to possibly win the game after he turned it over trying to bring the ball up against a full-court press. Riley drove the lane, missed, but got his own rebound and put it back up and in. Jones' half-court heave right before the buzzer missed left, but SIU never lost its confidence.
The Salukis even went down in the opening 40 seconds of overtime after Sam Cunliffe, who scored 15 points, hit a jumper on Evansville's first possession.
"We made some mistakes, but our guys never had their heads down," SIU coach Bryan Mullins said. "Every huddle, our guys were saying 'We're winning this game,' and I was just proud of the message going inside the guys' heads throughout the huddle. It's a great road win, and now we gotta move on."
Mullins never hesitated to put the ball in Jones' hands down the stretch. The 6-1, 200-pound right-hander made a tough runner in the lane to put the Salukis up one with 66 seconds to play in overtime and sank 3 of 4 at the free-throw line in the last 20 seconds.
"He was attacking downhill," Mullins said. "I know he was frustrated with some of the turnovers throughout the game. He's a winner. He's a tough kid, and he makes big plays. He never shies away from the moment, and stepped up and made huge free throws, too, so I'm really proud of Lance."
Riley had 24 for the Aces, who remained winless in the conference. The 6-5 senior guard had two at the half.
"The whole year we've been showing that we can play through adversity," Riley said. "Today wasn't any different. We have a good coaching staff. We have good group of guys. We just want to win. No matter what the situation is, we're gonna try to win, and coach is going to put us in the best position to win."
Cunliffe thought Wednesday night was the night for his team.
"We're not looking for close games. We're looking for wins at this point now," he said. "We're starting to feel more confident in what we're doing, so we're just going to evaluate on how we can improve. We're really close. We felt like we had it, so, it's kind of frustrating."
On Twitter: @THefferman