So. Illinois heads into MVC tournament with 11-game win streak

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- On a night for honoring Southern Illinois' seniors, Saluki junior Randal Falker stole the show.

Falker scored a career-high 30 points on 13-of-15 shooting and grabbed a game-high seven rebounds Saturday night, leading Southern Illinois (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today; No. 13 AP) to a 76-69 victory over Evansville in both teams' regular-season finale.

The 6-foot-7, 235-pounder got 18 of his points in the first half, scoring almost at will inside against foul-prone Evansville, and shouldered much of the load down the stretch, helping extend the Salukis' winning streak to 11 games before helping snip down the nets.

Southern hasn't lost since falling 75-68 on Jan. 17 at Evansville, and Falker made certain the Purple Aces didn't sweep the season series.

"Randal Falker was tremendous," Evansville coach Steve Merfeld said, shaking his head. "We gave him some angles to the basket, and when you give him angles, he's going to score and produce."

Tony Young added 17 points and fellow senior guard Jamaal Tatum had 15 in their last game at SIU Arena for the Salukis (25-5, 15-3 Missouri Valley), who will be the top seed when the conference tournament begins Thursday.

The Salukis, winners of the league's regular-season crown five of the past six seasons, hope to become the first top seed to win the tournament since Illinois State in 1998.

Saluki coach Chris Lowery hopes to buck the trend, a year after Southern entered the league tournament as the second seed and took home the trophy for an automatic NCAA tournament berth.

"We want to win everything, and that's what our goal is this year," he said, crediting Falker with helping Southern avoid a stumble against Evansville.

"We could have easily copped out and said, 'Hey, we already won the league,' and just go the other way," Lowery said. "But our kids really wanted to finish it off and played so hard.

"You've got to give Evansville credit. They came in here on our senior night and tried to steal one."

Falker said the Salukis wouldn't dwell on their regular-season feat.

"We still need to work on getting better," said Falker, who credited Tatum and Young with getting him the ball. "You can't get complacent. You've got to be hungry for more."

The Purple Aces (14-16, 6-12) didn't go easily, trailing 39-33 at halftime despite the absence of leading scoring Matt Webster, who sat much of the half after picking up his second foul with 13:18 to play.

Webster, who averages more than 16 points a game, had six points in the first half and finished with 21. Jason Holsinger had 11 points and Kyle Anslinger 10 for Evansville.

Evansville made an early charge in the second half, taking a 44-43 lead on a jumper by Anslinger with 15:37 to play.

Southern responded with a 14-2 run -- including four points by Falker and five by Tatum -- over the next 7 minutes to put the Salukis ahead to stay, 57-46.

Evansville, trailing 70-58 with 3:35 left, cut the deficit to 70-66 but never got closer.

"I thought our guys played awfully hard, awfully well," said Merfeld, whose team shot 52 percent from the field.

"We've had a tough year," he added. "We expected to win more games this year than we did. We just had a lot of tough, tough losses. It's certainly a testament to our kids' character that they're still fighting and believing that they can win basketball games."

Evansville had trouble from the outset with Falker, whose 18 first-half points came on 8-of-9 shooting, mostly from inside against the foul-prone Purple Aces.

Evansville gave Southern all it could handle in the first half, making nine of its 13 shots (69 percent) and hitting three of four from 3-point range to keep things close.