ST. LOUIS – The players sulked, the cheerleaders sighed and the fans stood in silence.
For the second year in a row, SIU had ended its conference season with a loss to the hated Creighton Bluejays.
The Salukis finished the Missouri Valley Conference tournament with a whimper Monday night, losing 80-56 to Creighton in the championship game. The loss cost SIU an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and a week of uncertainty before finally learning it would play – in the opening round of the Big Dance.
The cause of Monday’s dismantling was the same glaring weakness SIU displayed the entire weekend – shooting.
The Salukis shot 34 percent from the field during the route, missed their first 11 shots and connected with only five of their first 32 field goal attempts.
“There’s pretty much nothing you can do,” said junior Bryan Turner, who finished the Creighton game 0-of-6 from the field. “It was like there was a lid on the rim.”
Monday’s performance took many SIU players by surprise, but the warning signs were there in the tournament’s opening games.
Sophomore guard Darren Brooks went 3-of-11 from the field during SIU’s 75-63 quarterfinal win over Illinois State and as the tournament went on, it became infectious.
The Salukis, who came into the tournament with a field goal percentage of nearly 48 percent, shot 39 percent in the first half and 44 percent for the game in the semi-finals, but still managed to oust Southwest Missouri State from the tournament by a score of 64-55.
The game was close until about eight minutes to go when SIU, led by Jermaine Dearman’s six points in the final five minutes, pulled away.
But the next game was against Creighton, and there would be no reprieve for a bad start or poor shooting. That lethal combination put the Salukis down 42-16 at the half and sealed SIU’s fate.
SIU head coach Bruce Weber said he knew his team played poorly early, but the competition level was just low enough to squeak by with victories – a luxury not afforded to the Salukis Monday night.
“I think we were kind of lucky against Illinois State and Southwest that they just weren’t good enough,” Weber said of SIU’s first two games. “We were ripe to kind of get beat, but our kids just kind of willed ourselves to win.”
Starting center Sylvester Willis said the team’s early missed shots doomed SIU because the Bluejays, unlike the Redbirds and Bears, do not give their opponents much room for error.
“We got off some bad shots early, and we did it in the first two games, but we did it against a real good team and it just caught up to us,” Willis said.
Aside from saying they played poorly, the Salukis could not figure out why the bottom of the net was so elusive or why Creighton kicked their teeth in, but Weber has a few theories.
Weber said that before the Creighton game, his team knew it had done all it needed to do to reach the NCAA tournament. Weber said he did not tell them, but he cannot prevent his players from logging onto sports websites and figuring it out for themselves.
He said that could have been a factor in the loss, but said it is possible his team was simply burned out from playing its last seven games in must-win situations.
“I think the whole thing caught up to them looking back,” Weber said. “Sometimes you can’t even see it coming, but when you win seven in a row, and every game is the biggest game, it just got to the point where it just took its toll on us.
It also did not help that when Weber shifted SIU to a motion offense in the Creighton game, his players threw up shots after only a few screens. He prefers using more of the shot clock to get off a decent shot.
That will be the primary focus in practice this week, and SIU hopes its adjustments will give SIU fans something to cheer about again.
The players do not want one bad loss to overshadow what they feel has been a tremendous season.
“The whole year’s been great,” sophomore Stetson Hairston said. “We’ve accomplished things people never thought we would do.
“We had a good season. [Creighton] kicked our asses, and we just gotta go out there and play no matter what happens.”
Reporter Michael Brenner can be reached at [email protected]