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Updated: Thursday, March 20, 2003 7:48 AM EST
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No. 11 Southern Ill (24-6) vs No. 6 Missouri (21-10)
Southern Illinois Salukis
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Missouri Tigers
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INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- Sixth-seeded Missouri has a more favorable path for another deep run in the NCAA Tournament and begins that trek Thursday against 11th seed Southern Illinois in the first round of the Midwest Region.

Missouri (21-10) was a 12th seed a year ago before winning three games to reach the West Region final. The Tigers appear poised for a similar performance after winning three games to get to the final of last weekend's Big 12 Conference tournament over the weekend.

Arthur Johnson collected 21 points and 11 rebounds Sunday as Missouri nearly dug out of a 22-point hole before suffering a 49-47 loss to Oklahoma. The Tigers' Rickey Paulding had a chance to win it but misfired on a runner in the closing seconds.

Paulding is averaging 16.9 points per game and Johnson adds 15.6 points and 9.3 rebounds to lead Missouri. Point guard Ricky Clemons is third on the team at 15.5 points per contest.

Tigers coach Quin Snyder is 4-3 in NCAA Tournament games, going 2-1 in first-round contests.

Southern Illinois (24-6) also is coming off an appearance in the "Sweet 16" last year and a loss in the championship game of its conference tournament. The Salukis were handled by Creighton, 80-56, for the Missouri Valley title.

Darren Brooks scored 15 points and Jermaine Dearman added 10 and 10 rebounds for Southern Illinois, which never led after shooting just under 16 percent in the first half. Star guard Kent Williams made just 4-of-12 shots and scored 13 points.

Dearman was a key contributor in last year's NCAA Tournament run, averaging 19.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in three games. Williams, Brooks and Stetson Hairston all average in double figures as part of the Salukis' three-guard attack.

Missouri never has faced Southern Illinois.

The winner will play Marquette or Holy Cross on Saturday in the second round.

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