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2007 Missouri Valley Tournament Recap: Day 3

by Andrew Force | March 3rd, 2007

#1 Southern Illinois 53, #4 Bradley 51

The scene was all too familiar. SIU versus Bradley. MVC Championship opponents last year, the Salukis and Braves met for the sixth time in 14 months. It is safe to say they know each other.

The coaches know the adversary’s gameplan and the players know their counterparts’ tendencies. A spirited, tight game was expected, and the snug 53-51 SIU win did not disappoint. With 11 tied scores, Chinese finger traps have been less tight than this contest.

Each team sought to takes away the strengths of its opponent.

Undersized at every position, Bradley aimed to shutdown SIU’s beast in the middle, 62%-shooting-Randal Falker. SIU, on the other hand, had to curtail the Bradley barrage of threes.

With smart coaches and coachable players executing, both problems were averted.

Southern Illinois contained the Bradley three-point attack by switching on all screens. The high defense was zone-like in its movements. Bradley point-guard Daniel Ruffin destroyed Tony Young off the dribble early, collapsing the team defense and leaving shooters open.

The tightened effort of SIU midway through the opening half worked wonders. Bradley only offered 17 triples all game long, six below their season average. SIU dissuaded more long-range shots then it denied.

To restrain the reigning MVC Tourney MVP, Bradley doubled Falker the entire game. Even without the ball, he had one and a half men on him. Once received, Falker found the high-side collapsed and felt the pressure behind.

SIU Head Coach Chris Lowery removed Falker four times in the first half, predominantly for ineffective play. Lowery said, “Randal had to be a good soldier. We told him you’re not playing well; don’t have bad body language on offense.”

The guard responsible for feeding the post, Bryan Mullins, credited Bradley with “fronting Randal, not letting him catch. They would have the guards on the weakside trying to take away the lob there.”

Randal finished the game with five points on five total shots.

With Falker neutralized, somebody had to step up. MVC Player of the Year Jamaal Tatum asserted himself in fine fashion.

Back to back first half 3’s, a momentum-squelching three-point retort, and countless pull-up jumpers coalesced to form an awe-inspiring performance.

Tatum finished with 20 points and the ball in his hands, game tied in the waning moments. With an expert cross-over JT got to the basket. Two defenders slid over to defend Tatum’s lay-up, allowing burly Matt Shaw to get to the rim for the offensive board. Shaw gently dinked in the game winner, vaulting SIU into the MVC Final Sunday afternoon.

“Everybody kind of collapsed on him, so my guy left and I just went to the basket and came off the right way,” gleamed Shaw. “I was able to put it in.”

Sunday SIU appears in their third tournament final in five years. The opponent, Creighton, is no less familiar than Bradley, and in this case breeds true contempt.

In the two games this season, SIU beat CU by a total of three points.

“We set the standard there for awhile and they set it the last few years,” knows Creighton Head Coach Dana Altman. “We are just trying to catch them.”

#2 Creighton 75, #3 Missouri State 58

“He’s a pretty good player,” Creighton center Anthony Tolliver intentionally understated Saturday night.

Nate Funk, the player of note, marvelously scored 33 points powering the Creighton Bluejays to a 75-58 win over Missouri State.

Funk does more than take what he is given. Dana Altman gives Funk breathing room on offense, allowing him to create chances. At the same time, Altman calls occasional plays to get him a shot.

The specific trait that enables Funk to score uncontrollably is excellent lift on his jump shot. Even closely guarded Funk gets a clean look at the hoop.

“Every once in awhile, you get in a shooting rhythm,” admitted Funk. “Like all shooters, once you hit a couple of baskets the basket just seems to get bigger and bigger.”

The 6’3” guard knocked down challenged shots from the baseline, from the wings, and in the corners. Against an active, energized defense, Funk nailed 10 of 15 from the floor along with all 10 from the foul line.

Summarizing the whole Semifinals Tolliver noted, “Watching [SIU player] Jamaal Tatum hit some tough shots I thought ‘Wow, he was on a whole different level.’ But then Nate does the same exact thing. That is why they are first and second in the voting for player of the year.”

One of the best pure shooters in the league, MSU’s Blake Ahearn got off well in the first half. Funk barely edged Ahearn 17-15 for the first 20 minutes.

The CU midway goals included “not let Ahearn keep shooting like he was. Everybody did a pretty good job of adjusting in the second half.”

The Bluejays tightened the screws on Ahearn after the break, while Funk made 75% of his second half shots. Ahearn managed just two free throws prior to garbage time.

The difference between Funk and Ahearn is Nate’s ability to create his own shot whereas Blake generally only knocks down shots with feet set.

The win places Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Final for the ninth time. Creighton and SIU lock horns for the third time in the decisive contest. CU won all three of the previous meetings (1989, 2002, and 2003) over the Salukis.

Funk knows “Both games, the one at Creighton and the one at Southern Illinois were blood baths. I expect them to play that real tough defense like they always have.”

For both teams, Sunday’s affair marks the third game in three days. In such a heated conference rivalry, do not expect tired legs to lose the game. “People think we get tired by the time the third game comes around. It is the championship game,” reminds Tolliver. “We find the energy.”

–Andrew Force

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