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King of all mid-majors

Southern Illinois wins physical dogfight with Butler

Posted: Saturday February 17, 2007 10:19PM; Updated: Saturday February 17, 2007 10:24PM
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A half hour after Southern Illinois had beaten Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse in the marquee event of BracketBusters Saturday, Jamaal Tatum was still lingering in the Salukis' parents section. He was massaging his injured thigh, talking to his father, and clutching the only appropriate antidote for the 68-64, 48-foul, 63 free-throw grudge match that had just transpired: a bottle of Tylenol.

"This was the blue-collar matchup in college basketball," said Tatum, who led all scorers with 20 points despite playing on a bum leg. "I don't see many teams -- high-major, mid-major, low-major -- that play as rugged or as blue-collar as either us or Butler did today."

If you believe Tatum -- and we tend to, after sitting through this game -- then Southern Illinois should be crowned the blue-collar kings of college hoops. That, essentially, was what was on the line on Saturday in the sold-out barn that once served as the setting for the state-title game in Hoosiers. Neither the 16th-ranked Salukis (23-5) nor the 13th-ranked Bulldogs (24-4) were in need of what BracketBusters has traditionally offered -- a late-season resume-booster for the NCAA tournament. Both entered the game as at-large locks for the dance and were battling for nothing but seeding. The scrap that ensued -- one between the 322nd and 329th slowest teams in the nation -- was a high-intensity, whistle-happy affair that could only be described as a dogfight. (And that is exactly what no fewer than four Salukis -- coach Chris Lowery, forward Randal Falker, and guards Tony Young and Tatum called it afterward.)

Not that there weren't a few moments of beauty. The atmosphere was nothing short of idyllic, as fans packed a 80-year-old basketball oasis in the middle of a Midwestern blizzard. They were standing in the balconies, which were adorned with advertising for establishments as Ray's Trash Service and Hillyard: 1st in gym floor finishes. The sun poured in through the massive fieldhouse windows on the East side, illuminating the crowd, which was predominantly blue, but speckled with maroon pockets of boisterous Salukis fans. Butler's Pete Campbell -- one of the most unheralded marksmen in college hoops -- rained in five pretty threes, infusing life into the Bulldogs and helping cut a 10-point deficit to two late in the second half.

The two biggest highlights, however, belonged to Tatum, the man of the hour. In the final seconds of the first half he broke down A.J. Graves with a hesitation dribble and swished a three, then held up his right hand in the air for a good three seconds afterward ("You have to keep the follow-through up, otherwise it might not go in," Tatum said later, with a devious grin). At the 3:48 mark in the second half, he hit a fall-away, one-legged jumper with the shot clock running down that nearly crushed the home crowd. "I lost my balance on that one," he said, "so I had to just put the ball up and see what happened." What happened was it swished, and he scored 10 of the Salukis' final 15 points to ice the victory.

The day still belonged to defense. SIU's high-pressure, suffocating, rotating man-to-man D has a delayed impact. The Salukis forced just one turnover in the first half and had just one steal on the game. "You might say that was the greatest pressure we've had all year and we had six turnovers," said Butler coach Todd Lickliter. According to Tatum, however, forcing turnovers isn't really the point: "We're not trying to take the basketball from you," he said. "We want to wear you down so much that you turn the ball over on your own."

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