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The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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Salukis bust the Aces, maintain fourth seed in Missouri Valley

Clarence+Rupert+%284%29+and+AJ+Ferguson+%2814%29+celebrate+on+the+way+to+the+locker+room+after+the+Salukis+take+the+conference+win+over+the+Purple+Aces+Feb.+25%2C+2024+at+Ford+Center+in+Evansville%2C+Indiana.+
Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto
Clarence Rupert (4) and AJ Ferguson (14) celebrate on the way to the locker room after the Salukis take the conference win over the Purple Aces Feb. 25, 2024 at Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.

It was tighter than expected at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana, but the SIU men’s basketball team (19-10, 11-7) came away with a win over the Evansville Purple Aces (15-14, 6-12) by a score of 65-53.

The Salukis struggled to get going in the first half, trailing at halftime before rallying after the break to build a more comfortable lead.

“Early on in that first half, I didn’t think, offensively at least, we were playing to our capabilities…” SIU forward Troy D’Amico said. “At halftime, all we talked about was, keep doing what we’re doing on the defensive side of the floor, play a little bit faster, a little bit more pace on the offensive side of the floor, and good things will happen.”

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The Dawgs and Aces traded the lead seven times, with nine ties between them.

SIU would pull ahead when Xavier Johnson made his first bucket near the 14-minute mark in the second half, followed by back-to-back threes from Kennard Davis, D’Amico and Johnson to put the team up double-digits.

Troy D’Amico (0) passes the ball towards Trent Brown as the Salukis face the Purple Aces on the road Feb. 25, 2024 at Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“We were able to get stops, and push the ball and get a little more rhythm in transition,” Saluki head coach Bryan Mullins said. “…When we consistently get stops, we’re much better offensively.”

D’Amico led the team in scoring for the second straight game, dropping 17 points, all in the second half.

“I think he’s playing with a ton of confidence right now,” Mullins said. “I think he’s finding his rhythm, I think he’s driving the ball really well right now. He’s always been a really good shooter, and shots are starting to fall for him at a little bit higher rate.”

Johnson struggled to get going once again, but managed a respectable 12 points. However, the point guard approached a triple-double with game-highs in rebounds (10) and assists (eight).

Xavier Johnson (left), Trent Brown (middle) and Troy D’Amico (right) yell in celebration after a steal Feb. 25, 2024 at Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

A highlight of the night for Johnson came in the final 20 seconds, when he dove on the court twice to steal and later save a loose ball to essentially ice the game. Having hit the deck several times throughout the night and throughout the season, Johnson’s toughness was exemplified in that hustle play that puts “Floorburn” in “FloorburnU.”

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“That’s what our program’s about,” Mullins said. “We had some unbelievable plays the last couple minutes in terms of defensive stops, using our chest, using our feet, and then winning a couple of 50/50 balls. We talk about that with our guys all the time.”

Jarrett Hensley received his first start as a Saluki, stepping in for Clarence Rupert while he recovers from illness. Rupert returned to the court off the bench on Sunday afternoon, and Mullins said he expects the big man to be at full strength when the team next plays on Wednesday against Bradley.

“He barely practiced yesterday, but he wanted to suit up and be available,” Mullins said. “I’m proud of him, because some guys wouldn’t have given themselves to the team like he did today.”

This time, it was Scottie Ebube who shined in Rupert’s place, as he put up 12 points in 12 minutes with three dominating dunks to highlight his Sunday afternoon.

Scottie Ebube (2) goes up towards the basket to dunk the ball Feb. 25, 2024 at Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana. (Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto)

“He was huge, especially in that first half when we didn’t have much rhythm,” Mullins said. “…Scottie’s been playing really well here these last couple weeks. When he’s in there, he’s a great target for us, and he’s put a lot of work in.”

With the win, Southern remains in sole possession of the fourth spot in the Missouri Valley Conference race. The Salukis stand one game back of Bradley – their opponent on Wednesday – and one game ahead of Belmont and Northern Iowa – their opponent next Sunday.

Not only will both games be crucial tests for a Saluki team looking to beat opponents of that caliber in St. Louis, but they will also determine the path SIU will need to take, and whether that includes having to play in the first round or receiving a bye to Friday.

“Going to Bradley is always a tough place to play at,” D’Amico said. “They’re a great team, they always are, but I think we have the capabilities to get it done. We just gotta go lock in these next two days, and get it done on Wednesday.”

Managing editor Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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