Senior guard Jeff Early scored a team-high 14 points against Evansville Saturday, but 13 of those came in the first half.
The one point Early scored in the second half provided the margin of victory.
SIU (8-16, 5-8 Missouri Valley Conference) won 53-52 over Evansville (11-12, 6-7 MVC) at the SIU Arena on a free throw from Early with two seconds left in the game.
“I was a little nervous, put in that spot,” Early said. “We knew in the back of our heads we needed this win, no matter how it was going to come.”
The Salukis opened the game on a 10-2 run and stayed ahead for a majority of the game, leading by as much as 13 in the second half. But Evansville slowly climbed back, and tied the game at 52 apiece with 2:24 left in the game.
“We thought we were snake-bitten at that point,” coach Chris Lowery said.
With five seconds left in the game, Early stole the ball away from Evansville guard Troy Taylor, who fouled Early as he was driving in for a breakaway layup that would’ve given SIU the lead.
Instead, Early had to earn the win from the free-throw stripe.
“I was just thinking we need this free throw, if I could just hit one of these free throws, we should be OK,” Early said. “Even if I hit both, they were going to shoot a three, so in my head I was (focused) on just hitting one.”
Early sank the first free throw, giving SIU the 53-52 edge. But the second free throw rimmed out, Evansville rebounded and immediately called a timeout with two seconds left in the game.
Evansville inbounded the ball to Ryan, who settled for a long three-point shot over two Saluki defenders that bounced off the backboard as time expired.
“A blowout doesn’t help us. This helps us because you’re on pins and needles and you’re competing,” Lowery said. “You’re learning how to win in this situation, and not learning how to lose.”
In the first half, SIU shot 50 percent from the field compared to Evansville’s mark of 37.5 percent. The Saluki defense kept the Valley’s second-leading scorer, Evansville guard Colt Ryan, to three points on one-of-five shooting in the first half.
Early said he used a football mentality when guarding Ryan, taking on anybody who tried to get between him and Ryan on screens.
“I wasn’t trying to be dirty, just letting them know that I’m coming,” Early said. “If you screen, you’re going to feel me coming, I just run through them, and that’s the only reason I kept guarding (Ryan).”
But the second half was a different story as SIU only managed eight field goals on 22 shots while Evansville made 11 on the same number of shots. Ryan reversed his first-half misfortunes and scored 10 of his team-high 13 points in the second half.
Freshman forward Dantiel Daniels had 11 points, four rebounds and a career-high five blocks in the game. His 1.8 blocks per game leads the MVC, and after the game he said the defense by SIU’s guards helped his block totals.
“It’s natural instinct, really, to just time the block, get up and block the shot,” Daniels said.
Senior forward Mamadou Seck had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Both Seck and Daniels played 36 minutes each as sophomore forward Davante Drinkard sat out with a foot injury that has sidelined him for the last three games.
Freshman guard Josh Swan has also sat out the last three games with a foot injury, but Lowery said Swan’s likely done for the year while the jury is still out on Drinkard.
With the victory, SIU moves into an eighth-place tie with Indiana State, one game behind three teams — Northern Iowa, Drake, Evansville — tied for fifth place.
SIU takes on Missouri State Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. at the SIU Arena.