Sports activities Column | Bucky Dent: SIU males stay thriller going into MVC play

In some ways, the SIU men’s basketball team is a mystery as it enters the bulk of Missouri Valley Conference play.

It’s 9-4 overall and 1-1 in the conference, but an argument can be made that it doesn’t feel like a 9-4 team. In perhaps four games out of those 13 – Little Rock, Oklahoma State, Evansville and Division II Lincoln – the Salukis looked like a team that could win a conference title.

I didn’t know until the day Leach passed that the College Football Hall of Fame has a rule that for a coach to be inducted, he must have won at least 60% of his games.

The other nine have been varying shades of maroon, depending on one’s feelings or colors. There have been glimpses of excellence mixed with valleys of mediocre to poor execution that will get you beat by anybody.

Wednesday night’s 70-68 win at old regional rival Southeast Missouri State was one of those nights. SIU played 10 minutes of simply awful basketball against a team that entered with a six-game losing streak, failing to make a field goal for 9:48 of that span and allowing the RedHawks to bogart it around the floor on both ends.

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“They were getting anything they wanted and they were out-toughing us,” said Salukis guard Jawaun Newton. “We had to lock in.”

Which they did for most of the next 25 minutes. An 11-point deficit became an 11-point lead as SIU got the shots it wanted while consistently denying SEMO the looks it feasted off to begin the game.

But down the stretch, the Salukis offered a holiday rerun that their fans weren’t eager to view again. They got cautious on some possessions, burning clock without a real purpose, and were saved by Marcus Domask and the law of averages.

The team that seemingly found ways to lose tight games last year found a way to win one against the biggest brand-name team it will play during the regular season.

Domask scored 16 of his game-high 24 in the second half, muscling inside for short shots and also attracting enough fouls to go 8-of-8 at the line. His work got them a seven-point lead with less than 90 seconds left.

Then the RedHawks hit three 3-pointers and SIU screwed up just enough – a turnover here, a couple of missed free throws there – that SEMO actually had a chance to steal the win. And when Chris Harris, who hit five 3-pointers and was its best player for 40 minutes, lined up a clean look from the left wing, Saluki players and coaches had that sinking feeling.

But the guy who was 5-for-7 from distance couldn’t make it 6-for-8. His shot was long from the start and SEMO’s feeble attempt at a third shot was never really close. SIU survived, vowing to learn from its latest lesson.

“We shouldn’t have been in that position,” conceded coach Bryan Mullins. “We’ve got to execute better. But the best thing is to learn from winning.”

I walked up to SIU men’s basketball coach Bryan Mullins Wednesday after practice and his fir…

Even in this version of the Valley, where there are no unbeatable teams, learning from winning via a shaky finish offers untenable ground on which to stand. If the Salukis try this as an endgame entrée at Murray State on Dec. 29, odds are the final outcome might not go down quite as well.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Domask said. “We’ve got to get better at closing out games.”

Conference play lends itself to one and two-possession games where doing little things well is mandatory. SIU players and coaches know this. They’ve talked about this for a while now. Yet they still make things harder than they need to be with five-second calls and ill-advised fouls.

This is a veteran team that has shown they can play like it in pressure situations, like they did in November when they rallied to upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater. They would do well to use that as their template, not what they did Wednesday night.

Bucky Dent covers SIU sports for The Southern Illinoisan and also votes on the Wooden Award. He can be reached at or at 618-351-5086.

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