Southern stalls late as UNLV prevails in SoCal Challenge

Steven+Verplancken+Jr.+%2822%29+dribbles+past+the+opponents+to+setup+a+way+to+score+during+the+SIU+vs+Northern+Iowa+basketball+game+Jan.+31%2C+2021%2C+at+the+SIU+Bantera+Center+in+Carbondale%2C+Ill.+Subash+Kharel+%7C+%40pics.leaks

Subash Kharel | @pics.leaks

Steven Verplancken Jr. (22) dribbles past the opponents to setup a way to score during the SIU vs Northern Iowa basketball game Jan. 31, 2021, at the SIU Bantera Center in Carbondale, Ill. Subash Kharel | @pics.leaks

In a late-night contest that saw the team tip off past midnight central time into Tuesday morning, Southern Illinois fell to 3-2 in a 56-49 loss to the unbeaten UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. The game was SIU’s first of two in southern California as part of the SoCal Challenge during Thanksgiving week.

The Salukis shot just 6-for-21 in the second half, and scored only four points in the final 10 minutes of the game. During this span, UNLV managed to take the lead and extend it in what was otherwise a game that SIU had the upper hand in.

“To travel out here, so much prep for this game, and then to lose, it definitely hurts hard,” senior Marcus Domask said.

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In the first half, Southern seemed to break out of its recent shooting troubles with a 63% field goal percentage, nearly doubling UNLV’s 34%. However, UNLV attempted 10 more shots than SIU, and made only two fewer to keep the score close.

The main reason for that difference was turnovers, of which the Salukis committed 21 to the Rebels’ 15.

“It’s tough to win when you’re turning the ball over that much, and just not getting many shot attempts,” Domask said.

Although the Salukis technically scored more points off turnovers by a 16-9 margin, the number of empty possessions Southern had in the first half made it difficult to overcome their second-half slump.

“UNLV did what they do to teams. They turned us over a lot,” head coach Bryan Mullins said. “When we didn’t turn it over, I thought we got some good looks, and made some shots.”

What was expected to be a defensive battle started well for Southern, as it jumped out to an 11-3 lead to begin the game. The lead would be as much as 11 with under seven minutes to go in the half.

But the Rebels would rattle off an 11-3 run of their own to keep it close, and took the lead for the first time four minutes into the second half. Around that time, the Saluki offense fell into its familiar cold spell, and allowed UNLV to control the rest of the game.

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“I think we had the right type of effort, the right type of mentality,” Mullins said. “We just, offensively, struggled to get clean looks. I’ve got to do a better job finding some solutions where we can get some better shots for our guys.”

Domask did most of the heavy lifting for Southern Illinois. The senior tallied 21 points and six rebounds while playing all 40 minutes.

“Marcus is a warrior,” Mullins said. “He’s a go-to guy. He can handle the pressure and he can still make decisions.”

Sophomore Clarence Rupert turned in an efficient 3-for-4 shooting to go along with seven rebounds, including three offensive boards. The St. Peter’s transfer showed part of that physicality that he was picked up for this past offseason.

“He [Rupert] played with great energy,” Mullins said. “I thought he rebounded the ball well for us, and gave us a level of toughness there.

On the flip side, starting guards Xavier Johnson and Trent Brown struggled once again. Johnson was held scoreless in 28 minutes, while Brown shot 2-for-6 on the night, all from three-point range.

Brown’s offensive game has been almost exclusively three-pointers, and he has only made five of them in five games so far this season. Meanwhile, Johnson, who averaged 7.7 points per game last year at George Mason, has only scored past that total once.

Due to the loss, the Salukis will once again play in the midnight central slot on Wednesday night, as they play Cal Baptist. The Lancers are 3-1, coming off of a road upset against Washington and an overtime loss to Minnesota in their last two games.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen.

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