Salukis rely on backup to advance

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As a redshirt freshman in 2005-06, Tony Boyle was the fourth of four Southern Illinois big men, averaging just nine minutes. In 2006-07, the 6-foot-8 sophomore had moved up the depth chart slightly, yet still averaged only a bucket a ballgame.

On Friday night in the Salukis' 61-51 first-round win over Holy Cross, however, Boyle stepped out of the shadows and became a folk hero.

In recent years, SIU has built a reputation for nails-tough defense, but the Salukis' increase in national prominence -- a high poll ranking, a school-record 28 wins and an NCAA No. 4 seed -- are due in large part to a new and improved layer of streaky offense. One of those streaks happened late in the first half of Friday's game, when 6-7 junior forward Matt Shaw broke open a tight 19-19 contest with an alley-oop finish and a transition goaltend. He finished the first half with a team-high 11 points.

But as the halftime buzzer sounded, Shaw came down awkwardly on his ankle going for an offensive rebound. As Shaw lurched and limped off the court, the maroon-clad fans behind the SIU bench looked on in hushed silence, pondering their NCAA fate with hands drawn to mouths.

"It was a real shooting pain," said Shaw after the game. "I didn't know if I was going to be able to play any more or not."

Despite the steep stakes of an NCAA Tournament game, Shaw's coach wasn't going to take any chances with his most dynamic player.

"I waited until two minutes [left in halftime], and he got off the trainer's table and was a little ginger," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "I just said, 'No,' and walked out [of the locker room]. At that point I wasn't going to play him no matter if he could or if he couldn't."

So enter Boyle, and enter destiny.

"When I went out there, I drew something up and put Tony Boyle's initials down and we just went on," said Lowery. "I didn't say anything about it, that was the key. I think if I would have talked to him, he would have panicked and gotten nervous."

"There was no thinking, there was no time to think," Boyle said. "Halftime was over, coach put me in and I had to play."

It took him a few minutes to warm up, but play he did. By the 16-minute media timeout, Shaw had hobbled back out to the bench in his warmups and transferred his offensive mojo to Boyle with a fist-knock and a "come on, T.B." After Holy Cross had trimmed the lead to two -- and as the purple Patriot League-eating contingent across the aisle began smelling a giant upset -- the backup big man picked up offensively where Shaw had left off. Keyed by Boyle's layups and free throws, the Salukis began to rebuild a buffer.

Even though he didn't play a minute of the first half, Boyle ended the game as the Salukis' leading scorer with 14. In his pinch-balling role, he also contributed five rebounds (two offensive), clogged up the paint and drew four Crusader fouls.

"The last thing I wrote on our board was 'Stay together,'" Lowery said. "I didn't know that we'd have a kid injured at the end of the half … and he wouldn't be able to play again. Then for these kids to stay together, and have a kid play for a whole second half without being in foul trouble, executing on both sides of the ball the right way that Tony Boyle did today, that was phenomenal."

And the performance was a phenomenal confidence-booster as well for the young forward.

"It's not just my confidence, it's about gaining my coach's confidence as well," said Boyle, who was suspended by Lowery for an exhibition game earlier in the year for an unspecified team-rules violation. "I know what I can do, it's just good to be given the chance."

Then there's Shaw and his ankle, the health of which would certainly help against the Salukis' second-round opponent. Southern Illinois has already played Virginia Tech, on Nov. 26 at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. Shaw was especially potent in that game, scoring a team-high 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting as SIU notched a 69-64 win over the Hokies.

"We're just going to wait and see tonight," Lowery said after the game. "Just go back to the hotel, get with the doctor and see what happens."

"This is the NCAAs, it's what we worked for all year long," Shaw said. "I'll get back in there if I'm physically able to."

But at least the Salukis faithful know they have a backup who's been tested in the crucible of NCAA Tournament play. Boyle's final basket of the game was a layup with 2:39 to go that extended the SIU lead to nine and prompted a Holy Cross timeout. The fans lifted up their new hero's name to the hoop heavens as a chant: "To-ny, Boy-le!"

"Yeah, I heard it," Boyle said. "It hasn't happened since high school, so I mean, it's awesome, what can I say?"

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.