Southern Illinois overcomes injury, grinds out satisfying victory

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The masters of mayhem are moving on.

Southern Illinois got the type of game it craves -- no rhythm, no flow, no open shots -- and turned it into a 61-51 victory over Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday night.

Letting their gritty defense do the work, the Salukis (28-6) overcame a front-line injury by getting as many floor burns as fastbreaks.

"We just went out and tried to pressure the ball as hard as we could," said guard Tony Young, who had a pair of steals. "That's part of our game plan: take people out of their game. We try to take them out of their comfort level."

Holy Cross (25-9) was totally out of whack against a defense that challenged every shot and never seemed to slow down.

"We were excited to be here, but this is very disappointing," senior guard Torey Thomas said. "If we had executed the game plan, we could have won this game. The tournament is fun. Everything was fun and exciting, but this is very disappointing and it hurts."

It wasn't all defense for the Salukis. Reserve forward Tony Boyle scored a career-high 14 points in the second half, including one banked-in free throw, as Southern Illinois matched its school record for wins.

The Salukis will face Virginia Tech in the second round of the West Regional on Sunday.

Playing with the best NCAA Tournament seed in its history, No. 4 Southern Illinois had trouble finding shots against a switching, trapping defense that seemed to know what it was going to do.

Holy Cross had even bigger problems, keeping the Crusaders in a deep tournament rut. They won the national championship in 1947 with a team that featured guard Bob Cousy, but haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1953, dropping their last nine.

Boyle took over after forward Matt Shaw hurt his left ankle while getting a rebound in the closing seconds of the first half. The sophomore did just enough to keep Southern Illinois ahead the rest of the way.

"He was just laying there grabbing his ankle," said Boyle, who played the entire second half. "You can't judge how bad it is. I wasn't even thinking about him not playing when we came back. I didn't know until 30 seconds before halftime was over."

Thomas led Holy Cross with 15 points, but went only 3-of-16 from the field. Senior guard Keith Simmons, the Patriot League's player of the year, went 0-for-5 from the field and managed only four free throws in 36 minutes.

Everyone figured it would be decided by skinned-knee defense. Both teams rank in the top 10 nationally in fewest points allowed per game -- Southern Illinois is third at 56.5, Holy Cross ninth at 57.1.

Plus, both teams had a defensive player of the year in their conference -- the Salukis' Randal Falker in the Missouri Valley, the Crusaders' Thomas in the Patriot.

Six minutes in, the score was stuck at 4-all, the teams were a combined 2-for-9 from the field, and the frenetic pressure had forced eight ugly turnovers. The defenses had already dug in.

For most of the half, baskets were so scarce that a three-point play qualified as a scoring spree.

In the last 4 minutes, Southern Illinois put together the game's first and most decisive run -- a 9-0 spurt that featured a pair of fastbreak baskets by Shaw. Even that came at a price.

Shaw, a junior forward who averages 11.4 points, hurt his left ankle while trying to rebound a missed shot at the buzzer. He sat on the court for several minutes, holding his lower leg, while the rest of the Salukis walked off with a 30-25 halftime lead.

Shaw limped to the bench for the start of the second half, moving so slowly that it was obvious he wouldn't play again.

"The last thing I wrote on the board was to stay together, not knowing that we were going to have a kid lost at the end of the half," coach Chris Lowery said.

The start of the second half held to form -- Falker's free throw accounted for all of the scoring in the first 4 minutes. Bryan Mullins' 3-pointer -- only the second 3 of the game -- gave Southern Illinois its biggest lead, 38-29, with 12:42 to go.

With Boyle scoring inside, the Salukis led by at least four points the rest of the way. Boyle had a free throw and a layup that blunted the Crusaders' final rally and helped Southern Illinois pull away down the stretch.

"That's probably the most minutes I've played in a row all year," Boyle said. "I was tired, but it was for all the marbles."