CARBONDALE — Drake guard D.J. Wilkins scored 20 points to lead his team to victory Tuesday night, and earned some possible votes for the Missouri Valley Conference's Freshman of the Year Award in the process.
Wilkins' driving layup with under two minutes to go at SIU Arena helped double the Bulldogs' three-point lead. The 6-foot-2, 179-pound freshman point guard drew the foul on Sean Lloyd and gave Drake the two-possession lead it needed to hold on for a 72-69 victory.
"He's gonna get votes for freshman of the year now. No question," SIU coach Barry Hinson said after watching Wilkins sink 7 of 11 from the field in 36 minutes. "He's gonna give (Northern Iowa guard A.J.) Green a run for his money for freshman of the year. As a matter of fact, he could win freshman of the year, he really played well tonight."
SIU (13-13, 6-7 Missouri Valley Conference) trailed by double digits most of the second half before making a run in the final 10 minutes. Armon Fletcher scored 21 points and Kavion Pippen added 19, including nine in the second half, but the Salukis came up short after Drake (19-7, 8-5) kept the door closed at SIU Arena.
The Bulldogs hit 13 of 16 free throws, including 8 of 10 in the second half, to secure the victory. Aaron Cook banked in a high-arcing shot off the window to pull SIU within two in the final minute, but Drake's Brady Ellingson and Wilkins canned four free throws to shut the door on win No. 19 of the season. Ellingson made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 14.2 seconds to play, and after Marcus Bartley's 3-pointer made it interesting, Wilkins was fouled in the backcourt and calmly canned two at the line for the final margin.
"I thought D.J. played a tremendous game, he and Brady Ellingson both," Drake coach Darian DeVries said. "They were trying to take those two guys away, so they really had to earn their points. They had to work for it on every possession, but he made some huge shots for us in the second half."
Ellingson went for 17 points, three assists and no turnovers in 36 minutes. Drake's starting guards (Wilkins, Ellingson and Noah Thomas) outscored SIU's starting three guards 43-24. Garrett Sturtz' four points and Anthony Murphy's three points gave the Bulldogs 50 from their backcourt, compared to 27 for the Salukis.
"Our bigs did what they had to do," said Hinson, who got 19 and six from Pippen and 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists from guard/forward Fletcher. "Our bigs played extremely well, and I thought our guards played well at times, we just struggled to make shots tonight with our guards. We struggled to finish at the basket, and if there was a point in time where I thought the game was lost, it was at the start of the second half."
Down seven at the half to the top-scoring team in the league, SIU missed four of its first seven shots to start the second half and went down 11 at the 13:05 mark. Drake shot 46.4 percent from the field (26 of 56), the seventh straight game the Salukis allowed over 40 percent.
SIU made 43.8 percent from the field (28 of 64) and had 15 assists against just six turnovers.
"It was very disappointing, but we can't hang our heads too low," Fletcher said. "We played as hard as we could, and I feel like we left it out there on the floor. We just gave up a few easy baskets at the defensive end, had a couple calls that didn't go our way, but our effort was great tonight."
SIU fell into sixth place in the MVC with the loss in the only league game Tuesday night. The Salukis could move into a tie for fifth place if Valparaiso loses at home to Indiana State, or stay in sixth with Northern Iowa and Bradley if they both win Wednesday night. With five Valley games left, SIU is only a loss out of last place with Valparaiso (road), MVC leader Loyola (home) and third-place Illinois State (home finale) still on the schedule.
The Salukis are next at Indiana State Saturday. Tipoff at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, is set for 11 a.m. The Salukis beat the Sycamores 88-73 in their highest-scoring game of the season Jan. 30.