CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — SIU's men's basketball team won't play back-to-back home games during conference play until Jan. 23, when Northern Iowa comes to SIU Arena three days after Bradley.
They will be the only consecutive home games during a calendar week (Sunday to Saturday) during the entire league season for the Salukis (9-6, 2-0 Missouri Valley Conference), who, fortunately, have won five out of their last six outside of Carbondale. The 14th-oldest team in the country per years of Division I experience (2.37), according to KenPom.com, SIU starts three seniors and may get another one back when they tip-off at Drake (11-4, 0-2) Tuesday night in Des Moines.
Salukis coach Barry Hinson was mum on guard Armon Fletcher's status after Saturday's win at Northern Iowa, but multiple sources close to the team have told The Southern Illinoisan the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder from Edwardsville will at least be available Tuesday night. Fletcher has missed the last six games after getting suspended for breaking team rules prior to SIU's win at Southeast Missouri State Dec. 8. He has practiced, traveled and even warmed up prior to each of those games, but watched them all from the bench.
Even without Fletcher and injured forward Thik Bol, SIU's experience helped it rally from five points down in the final 12 minutes against the Panthers. In a game neither team led by double digits, the Salukis took a 44-42 lead off Sean Lloyd's layup at the 6:47 mark and never trailed again.
"One of the byproducts of having a veteran team, hopefully the byproduct of having a veteran team, that when you do challenge 'em they will respond," said Hinson, who barked loudly at the squad after it shot nearly 48 percent from the field in the first half Saturday but only led Northern Iowa by two at the break. "That first media timeout, we challenged 'em, and they responded."
SIU trailed 38-33 with 12:44 to play at the McLeod Center. Center Kavion Pippen, who had a game-high 18 points in 22 minutes, kicked off a 15-4 run with a short jumper. The Salukis went on to beat the Panthers in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1994-95 despite scoring just 58 points, their lowest offensive output in a victory this season.
"We knew they were at home and they were gonna make a run," said point guard Marcus Bartley, one of six seniors on this season's Saluki squad. "We just had to stay together, not freak out or anything. Just focus on getting stops and making good execution at the offensive end."
Bartley scored 13 points in the win at Northern Iowa, his highest offensive output since putting up 18 in a win over Howard on Nov. 19. Aaron Cook added 14 points and two of SIU's nine steals. Eric McGill had seven points, a team-high eight rebounds and a team-high four steals.
While SIU knows who it is, Drake is regrouping after losing assists leader and second-leading scorer Nick Norton to a season-ending injury. Norton tore his ACL in the Bulldogs' 82-77, double-overtime loss at Evansville on Wednesday night, leaving sophomore Noah Thomas and freshman Garrett Sturtz to handle the point guard duties.
"I told (Thomas) I wanted him to play free, and that we would do everything we can to simplify things for him," first-year Drake coach Darian DeVries said. "Just be aggressive and don't be looking over your shoulder. If you make a mistake, just be you, and play confident, and have some fun with it."
Thomas had eight points, five assists and two turnovers in Drake's 85-74 home loss to Loyola Saturday. Sturtz, a 6-3 freshman guard from Newton, Iowa, scored four points and had one assist and one turnover in 17 minutes off the bench. With Norton, the Bulldogs led the Valley in assists per game (17.5) and offense, averaging 80.7 points per game.
SIU comes off one of its best defensive efforts of the season. The Salukis held Northern Iowa to 31.5 percent shooting, the lowest for an opponent since 2009.