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Stifling defense keys Southern Illinois win over Va. Tech

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Compared to practice, sometimes Southern
Illinois' games are almost like a day off for the Salukis.

Driven by the tenacious defense instilled during those workouts
-- and three big 3-pointers by Jamaal Tatum -- Southern Illinois
pulled away from Virginia Tech 63-48 Sunday in the second round of
the West Regional.

Tatum, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, scored
21 points. The Salukis have won 15 of 16, and set a school record
for victories in a season.

This win was due to defense -- which is nothing new for kids who
must buy into the concept that defense wins games or else you might
want to find another place to play.

"We play so hard in practice that when we go against other
teams it's almost easier," guard Bryan Mullins said.

The Salukis advance to meet the Kansas-Kentucky winner in a
regional semifinal on Thursday night in San Jose, Calif. Rest
assured that neither team wants to face a team so dedicated to
floor burns and physical play.

"A lot of teams go out and say, 'I'm going to stop my man.' But
if we don't stop our man, we know we have help," Tatum said.
"Coach talks about not playing selfish defense. We know that our
teammates will help us out."

Tony Young added 17, Mullins 11 and Randall Falker 10 points and
12 rebounds for Southern Illinois (29-6), which surpassed the
victory total from the 2000-01 team that also made it to the round
of 16.

It wasn't all defense. The Salukis matched their season best
with 12 3-pointers on 21 attempts.

"Since everyone knows us for our defense and we play so hard on
defense, people don't realize that we can score," Mullins said.
"We've been getting a lot better on offense. That showed today."

Jamon Gordon had 16 points and Deron Washington added 15 for
fifth-seeded Virginia Tech (22-12), which hadn't been held to fewer
than 54 points all season. Zabian Dowdell, a first-team All-ACC
guard who came in averaging 18 a game, scored seven points.

"They are a strong defensive team," Washington said. "We
couldn't get any easy buckets to get us going. It was
frustrating."

In practice, the Salukis play a game with no fouls and no out of
bounds that coach Chris Lowery calls "Keep Playing." There's no
whining, which develops toughness.

"That's how we teach them, just to play no matter the
circumstance," Lowery said.

Tatum had hit the decisive 3 to break a late tie when the teams
met back in November at a tournament in Florida, a game the Salukis
won 69-64.

SIU's fans chanted "De-fense! De-fense!" and the Salukis --
third in the nation allowing 56.3 points a game -- responded during
a 16-2 run bridging the halves. Forget flashy dunks or no-look
passes, the spurt was built on man-to-man defense and a couple of
timely shots. The crowd cheered louder after defensive stops than
after baskets.

Ahead 22-20, the Salukis stretched their lead when Tatum -- who
later banked in a 3 from the top of the key and also hit a free
throw on a bank shot -- made two shots behind the arc to close the
half for a 28-20 lead.

It was the fewest points Virginia Tech scored in a half this
season.

The Salukis then opened the second half with Tatum hitting
another 3 to push the lead to 31-20. For much of the rest of the
game, SIU was content to spread the floor, melt away time and put
up a shot with a few seconds left on the shot clock -- like a game
of keepaway with scholarships.

Young's third 3 gave the Salukis a 44-31 edge at the midpoint of
the second half. Against such an aggressive defense, and an offense
intent on keeping the score down, the Hokies had no chance.

"It's very, very simple: you make shots, you win. You don't
make shots, you don't win," said Virginia Tech coach Seth
Greenberg, whose team was outscored by 30 points behind the arc.
"We didn't make shots. We had good looks early in the game but we
didn't make them."

The biggest cheer of the second half from SIU fans came when
Tatum put up a shot with a second left on the shot clock -- and then
got his own rebound. At many schools, those moments are ignored.

Tony Boyle started in place of the Salukis' third-leading
scorer, Matt Shaw, who sprained an ankle at halftime of their 71-61
first-round win over Holy Cross. The Salukis didn't miss a beat.

Besides, it's not individuals but the way their team plays
defense that sets Southern Illinois apart.

"Some of the toughest days I've had as a basketball player have
been at practice going against my teammates," Tatum said. "I know
how hard our defense is because I go against it every day."

Somebody else will find that out next week.