CARBONDALE — Armon Fletcher didn’t duplicate his career performance from last month’s game against Valparaiso, but the Southern Illinois junior may have hit the biggest shot of his career on Saturday night.
Fletcher buried a 3-pointer from the corner with 44 seconds left and the Crusaders couldn’t find an answer down the stretch as Southern Illinois pulled out a 65-59 win in front of a crowd of 5,694 at SIU Arena.
Fletcher, who had a career-high 32 points in Valparaiso’s 83-72 win on Jan. 6, was held in check for much of the night before hitting the eventual game-winning 3-pointer.
“I kind of had a thought before we came on the court that (I) was going to make it,” Fletcher said. “I needed to keep shooting. Good players can play for the next shot…I knew it was going to go in.”
Bakari Evelyn had a chance to tie game on Valparaiso’s next possession, but the sophomore missed a deep 3-pointer. Tevonn Walker had another chance to cut into the deficit following two free throws for the Salukis, but the senior couldn’t get his shot to fall. The Crusaders missed their last five shots in the final 1:50 of the game.
The Crusaders dropped to 12-13 overall and 3-9 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Valparaiso has lost all six conference games on the road this season.
“We played hard enough to win that game, which we haven’t done consistently on the road,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “For us to win a game on the road, we’re going to have to step up, hit our free throws. We need to hit our shots. We can’t have 17 turnovers. I thought a little bit of our youth showed.”
Valparaiso held the lead for nearly 28 minutes of action on Saturday night and every time Southern Illinois inched closer to tying the game or retaking the lead, the Crusaders hit another big shot that has so often alluded them on the road this season.
Walker and Evelyn sandwiched 3-pointers around a Fletcher basket midway through the second half. Evelyn’s 3-pointer gave the Crusaders a 47-43 lead with 10:52 left, but when Aaron Cook connected on a free throw less than a minute later, it jumpstarted a stretch where both teams were within one possession of each other until there were less than 30 seconds remaining when Smithpeters knocked down two free throws to extend Southern Illinois’ lead following Fletcher’s game-winning 3-pointer.
“It was our opportunity,” Lottich said. “We missed two free throws when we were tied. We missed a big layup late that rimmed in and out. We had our shots, it just didn’t go our way (Saturday).”
Walker had 16 points and five rebounds to lead the Crusaders, but the senior missed three key free throws in the second half. Evelyn had 13 points and a career-high nine rebounds while Markus Golder added 13 points, six rebounds and career-best five assists.
The Crusaders shots just 5-of-11 from the free-throw line while Southern Illinois made 14 of its 24 attempts.
“The difference in this game (from last month’s meeting) was free throws,” Lottich said. “They got to the line 24 times, we got to the line 11. If you look at the box score it’s pretty even. Pretty even on the boards. Yeah, we had (17) turnovers, but we had more assists. It really came down to they got more points on the line than we did.”
Kavion Pippen had a game-high 21 points to lead the Salukis (16-9, 8-4) while Sean Lloyd had seven points and eight rebounds.