Last Sunday night, when most students were at home and already wondering why they had left, the whole of Southern Illinois was worried.
Not about the football team – at the time it seemed a given the football Salukis would go all the way. It was men’s basketball.
SIU basketball looked bad, real bad, in its season opener against pathetic Augustana, and nobody knew what to think of this new-fangled Saluki team.
The Division III team not only kept things relatively close, it managed to out-rebound a team that was supposedly bigger, faster and stronger.
The Southern Illinoisan ran a huge headline the next day that read “Warning signs,” which was very appropriate for the feeling among media and fans at the time.
But it lasted all of two days, and SIU can thank Stetson Hairston for that.
Hairston played his first game last Tuesday against Tennessee State, proved to be the team’s unquestioned emotional leader and turned a lethargic and sloppy team on its head.
It wasn’t his 10 points in 22 minutes or the relentless pressure he placed on the Tigers despite a bum leg. Hairston lit a fire in the SIU Arena and under his team Tuesday, something that has carried them to a Las Vegas Invitational title and quite possibly a win at Hawaii last night/this morning.
I’d love to get you that score, but the game begins after our final deadline.
Hairston received a standing ovation as he entered the floor midway through the first half, and earned it as the game progressed. He was all over the place defensively and slashed toward the basket a few times, hitting a miraculous shot and taking advantage of the small circle under the basket – one of the experimental rules used in the Las Vegas Invitational.
Head coach Chris Lowery calls Hairston Darren Brooks’ sidekick, and he picked up the slack for Brooks that night. Tennessee State ran a box-and-one, pretty much limiting what Brooks could do.
But Hairston’s biggest contribution to that game, and possibly this season was a simple gesture toward the end of the first half. After Tennessee State called a timeout because it was getting routed – SIU was up by more than 20 points at the time – Hairston threw his hands in the air, motioning for the crowd to scream at the top of its lungs.
It seems minor, but it was something no one had seen in the young season. Hairston was not only pumping up the crowd, he was pumping up his teammates – and it was infectious.
Later on, when Randal Falker was looking like Superman, it was Hairston that was smacking him and getting him pumped up. By the end of the game, the whole team was doing that straight-armed jumping up and down thing athletes do while on an emotional high, something that was not seen before.
Hairston did what great players do – he made his entire team better.
Now with a full arsenal, which is at least until Jan. 3 when his trial is supposed to proceed, SIU is looking like a top-25 team.
The Salukis can shoot, especially Jamaal Tatum who is now 60 percent from the three-point line on the season.
They can play defense, which was never a worry, and look great in transition.
Even the big men, considered a question mark at the beginning of the season, are looking good.
Josh Warren isn’t scoring points, but he played 25 minutes against a 7-foot-2 center in the Vanderbilt game. Falker is a sick rebounder already, showing the instincts of a junior, and Jamaal Foster has a pretty nifty post move.
This team, realistically, has a shot at the Elite Eight if everyone plays with the intensity they are displaying right now.
No one thought that was possible two Sundays ago, and the team can thank Stetson Hairston for the metaphorical kick in the butt.