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March 16, 2007

Defense keys Salukis win over Holy Cross

COLUMBUS, Ohio - No rhythm, no flow, no open shots. Southern Illinois got the exact type of game it wanted.

Letting their gritty defense do the work, the Salukis overcame a front-line injury and beat Holy Cross 61-51 on Friday night in a first-round NCAA tournament game that had as many floor burns as fastbreaks.

Reserve forward Tony Boyle scored a career-high 14 points in the second half, including one banked-in free throw, as Southern Illinois (28-6) matched its school record for wins and advanced in the West Regional.

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 (25-9) 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 a 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.

Torey 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.

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 into the game, 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 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.

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