TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Southern Illinois nearly lost much of what it had built during the season with a lackluster start against unheralded Indiana State.
Indiana State entered Wednesday's game tied for last place in the Missouri Valley Conference, but the Sycamores led the 14th-ranked Salukis by five early in the second half.
The Salukis stormed back to win 58-50 and claim the league title outright. In the process, they learned a valuable lesson.
"In order to be a champion, you have to come out and play every minute of every game," said Jamaal Tatum, who tied for the team lead with 15 points. "You have to be ready to play and execute the game plan. To be a champion, you can't let down."
Tony Young scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half for the Salukis (24-5, 14-3), who won their 10th straight.
A loss to the Sycamores (12-16, 5-12) would likely have cost the Salukis their Top 10 RPI slot and significantly lowered their NCAA tournament seed. Instead, Southern Illinois celebrated.
"I think just to win the conference, period, is a good thing," Young said. "We finished second last year. Just to come back and redeem ourselves from last year, it felt good to win it outright."
Young made four of five shots in the second half, including two of three 3-pointers. He said forward Randal Falker, who scored just four points but had 10 rebounds and four blocks, set good screens in the second half to free him.
"I was just playing hard," Young said. "I just happened to be open and I made some shots."
Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery said there was more to it than that.
"He just knew what he needed to do," Lowery said. "He took good shots, he took shots that he can make. Having the guts to go make plays when people need you the most is important."
Marico Stinson led Indiana State (12-16, 5-12) with 17 points, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Sycamores' fifth straight loss.
Southern Illinois held Indiana State to 33 percent shooting in the second half. The Salukis have won 12 of the past 13 games in the series and the last seven at the Hulman Center.
"Champions always find a way to pull it out," Tatum said.
Indiana State led 27-25 at halftime.
Stinson committed his fourth foul with 17:44 left and Indiana State leading 29-26. Despite that, the Sycamores extended their lead to 36-31 on a bank shot by Trent Wurtz with 14:14 left.
Southern Illinois countered with a 10-2 run that included two 3-pointers by Young. His second 3 gave the Salukis a 41-38 lead with 7:52 left, and Southern Illinois led the rest of the way.
Indiana State jumped out to a quick 9-2 lead. The Sycamores took a two-point halftime lead on a pair of free throws by Gabe Moore with 1 second left.
Southern Illinois shot 32 percent and made just six field goals in the first half.
Lowery expected to have a tough game because the Sycamores started the season 11-4 and had home wins over Purdue and Butler. But he wasn't surprised that his seniors, Tatum and Young, were the stars on Indiana State's Senior Night.
"It was good to have Senior Night on the road," Lowery said.