Carbondale, Ill. — Wesley Clemmons scored 18 of his career-high 24 points after halftime Saturday, including nine in a row midway through the final period, to lead Southern Illinois to an 88-78 non-conference men’s basketball victory over Western Kentucky University at SIU Arena.
Matt Shaw added a season-best 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Randal Falker scored 20 for the Salukis (5-5), who entered the game shooting 38.7 percent from the floor but connected on 56.5 percent including 8-of-14 from beyond the three-point arc. Bryan Mullins chipped in with 10 points — all after the break — and seven assists.
Courtney Lee paced the Hilltoppers (8-4) with 30 points, falling one shy of matching his career high, while posting five rebounds and two steals. A.J. Slaughter was the only other player in double figures for WKU, scoring a season-best 16 on 6-of-8 shooting.
Boris Siakam and Slaughter connected on a pair of baskets in a 17-second span to tie the game for the seventh and final time, 57-57, with 11-and-a-half minutes left. After Falker answered on the other end with a short jumper, Clemmons took over to help the Salukis build their advantage to seven, 68-61, with just over seven minutes to go. That included making 5-of-6 free throws over a two-minute span before sinking a pair of buckets.
He would finish 6-of-10 from the field — making 4-of-5 from three-point range — and 8-of-10 at the foul line, and he was also credited with four assists (without a turnover), three rebounds and two steals.
Slaughter’s three from the left wing would close the gap to 69-66 with five-and-a-half minutes left, but a 7-0 run by the Salukis put the game away.
Falker ended up 8-of-10 from the field and Shaw made 8-of-11 shots as SIU was 26-of-46 for the game. It was the Dawgs’ highest field-goal percentage of the year, and first time they have shot 50 percent since accomplishing the feat in their season opener Nov. 17.
“The difference in the game was Wesley Clemmons getting back on track for them offensively, and our combined production from five bigs was 14 points and 12 rebounds while their two starters had 44 and 16,” said WKU head coach Darrin Horn. “That’s been an area for us that we need to continue to improve on.”
It didn’t take long for the Salukis to build a double-digit advantage, as Shaw scored the first seven points in the opening 85 seconds as part of a 10-0 run. WKU responded with the aid of a four-and-a-half minute stretch in which it held SIU without a point, scoring 14 straight points for a 16-12 advantage with just over 12 minutes to go. Slaughter collected six points and Lee had five during that spurt.
From that point on, there were five lead changes and three ties before the Salukis took a 40-36 lead into the locker room.
Falker — who came into the game averaging 12.1 points per contest — scored 10 in a row to keep SIU close until Shaw’s three-point play gave it the lead back, 23-21, with eight-and-a-half minutes left. The edge was extended to six as the Dawgs connected on six free throws, while Falker’s jumper at 5:48 put SIU up 31-24.
Slaughter sparked an 8-0 WKU run, though, as his three-point play with 3:49 remaining gave the Toppers a 32-31 advantage. He collected 11 points in 12 minutes before the break, including five during that run.
But, Shaw hit two more three-pointers to put the Salukis in front prior to halftime. Shaw, who was averaging just under 13 points per contest entering the day, made all six shots from the floor in the first period en route to scoring 16 points.
Actually, SIU connected at a 63.6-percent rate in the opening 20 minutes.
“We knew coming into the game that Southern Illinois was going to come out swinging, offensively and defensively. That’s what teams that are used to winning championships do,” added Horn. “We told our guys how important is was to get off to a good start defensively because they have struggled to score. In our preparation, I didn’t think it was what people were doing to them but the fact that they had a lot of shots that hadn’t been falling for them.
“We gave them a couple of easy baskets early and they knocked down some other shots, which I think really got them going offensively.”
After a pair of Clemmons three-pointers helped SIU extended to a nine-point lead, 47-38, Lee scored five in a row to cap a 10-2 WKU spurt that drew the Toppers within one with 14-and-a-half minutes to go. Lee would end up scoring 10 points in a row for the Hilltoppers, adding a three-pointer and two free throws — the latter gave WKU its final lead, 53-51, with 13:18 to go.
Lee was 11-of-21 from the field, and he also made 6-of-7 free-throw attempts.
Tyrone Brazelton added nine points and a season-best six assists for the Toppers, while Mike Walker recorded a team-high seven rebounds.
WKU shot 51.7 percent over the final 20 minutes to finish the contest 27-of-56 (48.2 percent) overall. It also hit eight three-point field goals while connecting on 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, and was charged with a season-low 11 turnovers.
Falker added six boards and four assists for the Salukis, and Shaw had three assists as well. SIU committed 12 turnovers, and it shot 77.8 percent at the free-throw line.
The Hilltoppers will return to action after Christmas, as they open Sun Belt Conference action with a 7 p.m. (CST) tip at Troy on Saturday.