OMAHA, Neb. - Great rivalries don't always live up to their billing, but Saturday's matchup between arch-rivals Creighton and Southern Illinois was an instant classic.
In a game bursting with emotion, played in front of the largest and arguably loudest crowd in Nebraska history, Southern Illinois prevailed, thanks to a running jumper that Bryan Mullins banked home with 4.1 seconds remaining.
His basket gave the Salukis a 58-57 win, although Bluejays' guard Nate Funk almost watched his desperation shot go in at the buzzer for Creighton. Funk dribbled the length of the floor in four seconds and let loose an off-balance 3-pointer that ricocheted off the backboard and rim, before falling harmlessly to the ground.
The 17,459 fans in attendance, who delivered an ear-splitting roar throughout much of the game, quickly fell silent.
"That's a great college basketball game," Saluki head coach Chris Lowery reflected in his post-game press conference.
Indeed, it was. The two titans of the Missouri Valley Conference slugged it out for 40 minutes, knowing the victor would have an important leg up in the league standings.
A Creighton win would have put the Bluejays in sole possession of first place with a two-game lead over SIU at the halfway point of the conference season. Instead, the teams are now tied and trail first place Northern Iowa by half a game.
The Salukis (15-5, 6-3) jumped on top early by limiting Creighton to just two field goals and two free throws in the first 12 minutes of the contest.
Although Southern has struggled against zone defenses in recent games, it was able to find enough holes in the first half to knock down six 3-pointers. The Salukis took their biggest lead, 21-9, on a Matt Shaw triple with six minutes left in the half.
Most impressive was the fact that SIU built the lead with its two senior guards -- Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young -- sitting on the bench in foul trouble. The duo combined to play just 13 minutes in the opening stanza.
Freshman guard Joshua Bone sparked the Dawgs with a pair of first-half 3-pointers, while Wesley Clemmons also found the range from downtown.
"We've struggled with zone this year, but we at least made them respect us," Lowery said.
The Bluejays (12-7, 6-3), though, trimmed the deficit to 28-23 at halftime, and then made a dramatic run midway through the second half.
With the Salukis leading 40-33 at the 10:16 point, Creighton went on a 17-3 run, keyed by forward Anthony Tolliver and guard Nate Funk, who together scored 12 of the 17 points.
With each basket, the decibel level spiked a notch. When Creighton's Isacc Miles got a steal that led to a Nick Porter 3-point play, not only did the bucket give the Bluejays a 50-43 lead with 4:59 to go, but the volume in the Qwest Center reached a deafening crescendo.
"I'm calling timeout five feet away from (the referee), and he can't hear me," lamented Lowery.
The Salukis did finally get the timeout called, and the emotion of the moment spilled out as Lowery and assistant coach Rodney Watson vehemently argued what they thought was a foul on Creighton.
After making his point, Lowery turned to his team and channeled his energy toward them.
"Our coaches were arguing with the refs," Lowery said. "(I told the players) stop. Everybody be quiet. Look at me. This is what we've got to do."
"That was probably the biggest moment of the game," Mullins said. "Coach brought us back together in the huddle and said we're not going to lose this game."
With the roar of the crowd breathing down its neck upon every dribble, Southern regained its composure and chipped away the Bluejays' seven-point lead.
By pounding the ball inside to forward Randal Falker, who finished with a game-high 21 points, Southern was able to close to 50-49 on a layup by Falker with 3:45 to go.
"We force-fed him," Lowery said. "He made some unbelievable plays at the rim on finishes."
Both squads battled through the final minutes of the game with championship intensity. Players dove on the floor for rebounds and loose balls, and every possession was a war of wills.
The key turning point came when SIU's Tony Young drove baseline and drew a fifth foul on Tolliver at the 2:17 mark. That eliminated one of Creighton's two biggest offensive weapons and prompted Bluejays' head coach Dana Altman to deliver a Bill Cowher-type clenched-jaw stare at the officiating crew.
"(Losing Tolliver) put a strain on us," Altman said. "We're not as deep inside."
Southern took a 56-55 lead with 36 seconds to go when Tatum split a pair of free throws. However, Creighton's Nick Porter answered with a pair of charity tosses with 18 seconds left to give CU a one-point edge.
During a timeout, Lowery drew up the game-winning play-- a variation on a pick and roll between Mullins and Falker. Mullins had the option to dish to the big man or kick it out to Tatum for a 3-pointer.
"Everybody ran to Randal, and Bryan just made a play and kept going," Lowery said.
"The defense obviously didn't want JT (Tatum) to get an open look, so they kind of stretched out on him," Mullins explained. "That left me with a driving lane, where I was able to penetrate and make a shot."
Altman said his team correctly guessed Southern would look for its big man.
"We thought they would go to Falker," said Altman, whose team lost for the first time at home this season. "Mullins made a good drive and hit kind of a tough shot."
Southern has won seven-straight games in the series with Creighton, including four in a row at the Qwest Center -- a remarkable achievement considering the atmosphere.
"That's just an unbelievable environment, and when you come here, you have to play your best," Lowery said.
"The fans were great today," added Mullins. "It was a lot of fun to play in this game and silence them there at the end."