With plenty on the line on Saturday afternoon, the Evansville Purple Aces and the Southern Illinois Salukis tipped off for what was set up to be a key showdown in the Missouri Valley Conference. Both teams were behind Wichita State and Illinois State in the standings, but it was a chance to grab sole possession of third place in the conference standings and also to add a quality win.
Early on in the matchup, it was largely a back-and-forth battle between the two teams. DJ Balentine and Jaylon Brown were making some key plays for Evansville and Bola Olaniyan was responding for Southern Illinois. However, as the first half extended, the Purple Aces gradually took control and led 45-36 at halftime.
In the second half, it was actually pretty even, with Evansville outscoring Southern Illinois by just a 38-35 margin. However, with the halftime lead, the Salukis just couldn't do enough to get back in control. Both Anthony Beane and Mike Rodriguez made some big plays, but it was Brown and Egidijus Mockevicius that kept Evansville in front as Southern Illinois struggled with fouls and to score inside.
At the final, Evansville grabbed an 83-71 win over Southern Illinois.
The key leaders for Evansville in this game were DJ Balentine, Brown, and Mockevicius who all finished with double-digits. In total, Balentine finished with 27 points and six assists, Brown had 19 points, and Mockevicius finished with a double-double of 11 points and 12 rebounds.
On the other side, Southern Illinois had a few nice performances as well, even despite the loss. Beane finished with 22 points and five assists, Sean O'Brien had seven points and four rebounds, and Austin Weiher showed some real growth as a freshman and scored a season high of 11 points.
Undoubtedly, this is a big win for an Evansville team that was just 4-4 in its previous eight games before Saturday's win. This is actually Evansville's third win a row (despite going 4-4), but certainly, adding another resume win to get out of that rough stretch in late January and early February is big.
With the win, the Purple Aces improved to 22-7 overall and 11-5 in conference play. It also gives Evansville sole possession of third place in the conference standings and sets the team up to finish the regular season with five straight wins. After all, a road game against Bradley and a home finale against Northern Iowa certainly look winnable. If so, Evansville really would go into March with a ton of momentum.
On the other side, this is a tough loss for the Salukis. With the loss, Southern Illinois drops to 21-8 overall and 10-5 in conference play. This was an opportunity to secure the team's best conference win to date and arguably, Southern Illinois' best win of the season. Along with that, it was a chance to secure third in the conference and get in position to make a serious run at the top and in the postseason.
All told, this was a big win for Evansville and disappointing loss for Southern Illinois. The outcome certainly wasn't surprising given that the game was in Evansville, but nonetheless, the outcome will set the Purple Aces up to make a great run in the next few weeks. On the other side, Southern Illinois will have to hope that it can get things turned around quickly with a tough road game at Illinois State coming up on Wednesday.