INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Southern Illinois is making believers out of everyone these days it seems.
Shortly after the #15-ranked Salukis beat #12-ranked Butler, 68-64, on its home court, ESPN analyst and legendary head coach Rick Majerus pulled SIU head coach Chris Lowery aside to shower praise upon the Dawgs.
The media room was abuzz with reporters from major daily papers and Sports Illustrated raving to one another about a Saluki defense that held Butler sharpshooter A.J. Graves to five points.
Even Butler head coach Todd Lickliter was quick to compliment the upstarts from Carbondale, saying, "We'd like to play them again someday -- maybe in Atlanta," in a reference to the site of the 2007 Final Four.
The Salukis (23-5) have flown under the radar for much of this season. Saturday, they took a major step toward national credibility by beating a ranked Bulldog team.
Butler has been a "mid-major" media darling since an incredible string of early-season victories over the likes of Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Purdue. The "darling" mantle may have just passed to Southern Illinois, which will be profiled in next week's edition of SI.
Southern took charge of the game from the outset, staking out a 9-3 lead behind a pair of pull-up jumpers by Jamaal Tatum. It was merely the first salvo from the Saluki senior guard, who finished with a game-high 20 points.
It seemed every time the Bulldogs (24-5) would make a run, SIU would respond with a clutch basket by Tatum or Matt Shaw, who chipped in 15 points and made all four of his field goal attempts.
When a 10-point Saluki lead was cut to two, 49-47, Shaw buried a 3-pointer at the 6:18 mark to quiet a sold-out Hinkle Fieldhouse crowd of 10,827.
With 5:14 to go, a Brandon Green driving lay up brought the Bulldogs back within a deuce. However, Tatum proceeded to score eight points in the next two-and-a-half minutes to put Southern up, 62-54.
The biggest dagger was a baseline jumper in which Tatum took his defender off the dribble, rose high in the air and knocked down a 15-footer before the shot clock expired.
"That's a pro shot," Lowery said. "He just flinged it in."
Perhaps the biggest advantage Southern had was its ability to make a basket late in the shot clock. Tatum was especially lethal.
"There's something about (Tatum) at the end of the shot clock," Lowery said. "He's really taken advantage of and made unbelievable plays and shots that only special people can make."
While SIU's leading scorer was having a banner afternoon, Butler's Graves was not. He entered the game averaging 17.6 ppg but made just 1-of-8 shots.
"We never zero in on one player, but every time somebody was guarding him, they took it as a personal challenge to not get scored on," said Saluki guard Tony Young, who took several turns guarding Graves.
The notoriety the Butler team has received, including Graves, may have worked to its detriment.
"When you go against players like that, you hear so much about them and how great they are," Young said. "It is always a personal challenge to want to go out and stop that player from doing what he does."
"They know who's who, and sometimes they got after him a little more than other guys," added Lowery.
One player Southern could not contain was 6-foot-7 forward Pete Campbell, who came off the bench to make five 3-pointers.
"They're a great defensive team, but I guess it's hard to cover all the options," said Campbell, whose quick release led to 17 points.
Although the Salukis limited Butler to 41 percent shooting on the night, Lowery said he knew the Bulldogs would make enough shots to stay in the game.
"They run so many great things offensively, they're tough to deal with," he said. "You take one thing away, and they have the ability to make reads and change on the fly."
Southern Illinois shot 45 percent for the game. More importantly, Lowery felt his team's ball movement took its toll on Butler.
"We really grinded them down offensively with our motion," he said. "I thought we wore them out on that side of the ball, making them chase us."
Lickliter said Graves may have tired from trying to keep up with Tatum, who was constantly slipping off of ball screens.
"(Graves) was guarding #3 -- that's a good assignment," he said.
Another big factor in the game was the energetic bench play the Salukis received from guards Wesley Clemmons and Tyrone Green. Clemmons had seven points and four rebounds. The Indianapolis native had a large following at the game.
"Wes has had much more poise in the last four games than prior to that," Lowery said.
Green, a defensive specialist, hadn't scored a basket in SIU's last nine games. However, he had two key put-backs in the second half on offensive rebounds and finished with four points and five boards.
Southern protected its lead down the stretch, making 12-of-14 free throws in the final three minutes of the game.
The Salukis extended their winning streak to nine games. They also ended a streak of 10-straight road losses to ranked teams. The last time SIU knocked off a ranked team on the road was when it beat Michigan on Dec. 19, 1975.
Southern hasn't beaten a team ranked this high since topping #11 Villanova in 1988.
"You saw two Top 20 teams compete for 40 minutes," Lickliter said. "You saw guys make plays that were terrific. I can't believe there was a harder fought, better game throughout the course of this season."
No argument here.
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