Freshman forwards play big

By Gus Bode

Shaw, Falker gain valuable experience on road at Wichita

WICHITA, Kan. – With the score tied and just one minute, 14 seconds left to play in Saturday’s 58-56 loss at Wichita State, the SIU men’s basketball team buckled down for a defensive stop.

Jamaal Tatum answered the call by knocking the ball loose, sending it bouncing toward the sideline. Hustling to make the save, Tatum leaped, grabbed the ball and flung it in the air toward a group of awaiting Salukis and Shockers near midcourt.

Advertisement

Rising above everyone to haul in the desperation pass was freshman forward Randal Falker, whose arms and legs were stretched to the max to snatch the ball in mid-air at its highest point.

With the area so crowded, it was a dangerous leap, but Falker didn’t care. He wanted the ball more than anybody else – and he paid for it.

He was undercut on the play and was sent crashing to the ground, landing hard on his right shoulder in what looked like a scary fall. Falker rolled around uncomfortably for a second before hopping back on his feet to get ready for offense.

“I’m fine,” Falker said following the game. “My knees and my hip hurt, but that’s life.”

A jump ball was called, as many Shockers crowded around the fallen Falker, but the possession arrow pointed in favor of the Salukis. Mission accomplished for Falker, who walked away from the cluster as if nothing had happened.

Afterward, Saluki head coach Chris Lowery complimented Falker for his hustle in that particular instance, saying the freshman forward made a “heck of a play.”

A quick browse through Saturday’s box score won’t reveal anything truly eye-opening about Falker’s play, or that of fellow freshman forward Matt Shaw. No points to go with four rebounds, two assists and a block for Falker. Six points and four rebounds for Shaw.

Advertisement

But with SIU’s starting senior frontline of LaMar Owen and Josh Warren combining for just 15 minutes in the second half due to foul trouble, Shaw and Falker occupied the post in nearly every key stretch Saturday, offering the freshmen invaluable experience on the road in one of the most hostile venues the two will ever visit.

Shaw played 21 minutes, his highest since playing 23 against St. Louis just before Christmas, and Falker played 22 minutes, also his highest output since playing 25 minutes against the Billikens.

Both Falker and Shaw’s minutes were the most they’ve played during the Missouri Valley Conference slate, and both were on the floor for the final decisive moments of the game.

They also made some pretty big plays, like Falker’s aforementioned jump ball in the waning moments of the game.

“They did really well tonight,” Tatum said. “They had a great opportunity to come in and play in an atmosphere like this. They came in and were very productive.”

Shaw’s biggest contribution came with 1:39 remaining in the game when he was fouled after hauling in a defensive rebound, sending him to the free throw line with the Salukis trailing 56-54.

“As soon as I got fouled, I just got into my head that I was going to make them,” Shaw said.

Revealing none of the nerves that usually plague freshmen in game-changing situations, Shaw sank both free throws to knot the score despite the efforts of crazed Wichita State fans to make him miss.

“We told him at the beginning of the season that sometimes it’s going to come down to him hitting a big shot, because we might go to him,” said Owen, who played just two second-half minutes and was watching from the bench with four fouls. “We just told him to take his time, and he stepped up and hit two big shots. We knew he could do it.”

Both Falker and Shaw also provided solid defense against two of Wichita State’s top guns – Jamar Howard and Kyle Wilson.

But freshmen will be freshmen, and in the Salukis’ final attempt to win or tie, both Shaw and Falker were involved in the inbounds play that would result in no shot with 6.1 seconds remaining and SIU trailing by two.

A pass to Shaw was deflected out to half court where Falker recovered it with some time remaining. With no timeouts, and a bit of panic setting in, Falker threw the ball to nobody in particular.

The ball was stolen by Wichita State, and that is how the game ended.

“It’s horrible not to get a shot off,” Falker said. “I knew we didn’t have any timeouts, so it’s not like I could have grabbed the ball to call a timeout. I just tried to hurl it and see if somebody could catch it.”

Nobody for the Salukis caught the ball, leaving Lowery a little disappointed with Falker’s decision in that instance.

“Obviously I wanted them to finish better, but they’re both freshmen,” Lowery said. “I was very pleased with how they played. [Charles Koch Arena] is a tough place for them. They showed good toughness.”

Said Falker of his and Shaw’s performance and the potential Saluki frontcourt for years to come:”We’re getting better everyday.”

Reporter Adam Soebbing can be reached at [email protected]

Advertisement