ORLANDO, Fla. - Southern Illinois let a five-point lead slip away in the final two minutes of regulation and along with it a chance to knock off a Southeastern Conference powerhouse.
Instead, SIU ended up losing in overtime, 61-53, to Arkansas in the first round of the Old Spice Classic on Thanksgiving Day.
The Salukis (2-1) could have secured a victory with seven seconds left in the second half, but Jamaal Tatum split a pair of free throws, leaving the score tied, 53-53, at the end of regulation.
That spelled doom for SIU, because starting forwards Matt Shaw and Randal Falker had both fouled out, leaving the team without its top big men for the decisive overtime period.
The deeper and taller Razorbacks (3-0) took advantage, outscoring Southern, 8-0 in OT, to escape with the victory.
"We can't go overtime, because they have too many guys," Saluki head coach Chris Lowery said. "They have too much size and too much athleticism. We needed to win that one straight-up in regulation."
Momentum swung back-and-forth in the contest, with the Salukis grabbing an early 14-5 lead, but the Razorbacks answering with a 13-0 run.
Both teams had trouble handling the opponent's pressure with SIU commiting 23 turnovers and Arkansas 24. Many of Southern's turnovers led to fast-break dunks, however.
"Their turnovers were different from ours," Lowery observed. "Our turnovers led to layups."
Ten of the Razorbacks' 24 first-half points came in transition.
"We knew transition-wise they were unbelievable," Lowery said. "We got them stopped in transition in the second half."
SIU led by two at halftime, but fell behind early in the second half and eventually trailed, 38-31, after a 3-pointer by Patrick Beverley with 12:24 remaining in the contest.
But Southern Illinois scrapped its way back into the lead with a 12-4 run tht included a pair of 3-pointers by Tatum. He fininshed with a game-high 17 points.
Free throws by Falker with 1:54 to go gave the Salukis a 52-47 lead. However, Shaw fouled out on Arkansas' next possession, and Falker picked up his fifth foul, battling for a loose ball with 1:11 left.
"Those two guys are hungry and upset and felt they let their teammates down," Lowery said.
The loss of Falker was particularly devastating, because he had scored 14 points in only 18 minutes.
"Randal was special," Lowery said. "When he was in, they couldn't deal with him."
With the big men on the bench, Southern struggled to get good ball movement in the last two minutes of the game and in overtime.
"Our patience and poise was very poor in the last two minutes," Lowery said. "We're very fundamental and very sound, but we didn't show that in the last two minutes of regulation."
Tatum was frequently left holding the ball as the motion offense misfired.
"We didn't trust each other," Lowery said. "One guy tried to make plays off the bounce, and that's not what we needed to do. We needed to get movement."
The game left some lingering "what-ifs" for the Salukis. What if Tatum had made both free throws? What if Falker and Shaw hadn't fouled out?
Tatum said the team can't let the what-ifs affect its play tomorrow.
"You have to erase it as soon as it's over and get ready for the next game," he said. "That kind of stuff happens in games. You have to learn from it, but you can't dwell on it."
"We have to refocus," Lowery said. "We can't afford to go 1-2 in this tournament."
- From SIU Media -