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SIU forward matures into force

Jermaine Dearman chose a great time to grow up in the eyes of his coach. He helped put top seed Southern Illinois in tonight's Missouri Valley Conference title game against Creighton.

Dearman followed up a 26-point performance in the quarterfinals against Illinois State by scoring a team-high 17 in Sunday's semifinal against Southwest Missouri State, leading SIU past the No. 4 seed 64-55.

"He's had some immaturity at times," Salukis coach Bruce Weber said of his 6-foot-8 all-conference second-team forward, who led the Salukis in rebounding at 6.2 a game. "He's been focused the last three weeks. I think not making first team stuck in his gut a little bit.

"He's trying to prove to everybody in the Valley that he belonged there. I told him, "What you do at the end of the year is what's going to be remembered going into the summer.' Right now he's leaving a pretty good image of himself with a lot of people. Now he's got to finish it (tonight) and hopefully keep it going in the NCAA (Tournament)."

Saturday, with the Salukis trailing by a point with 9:25 remaining, Dearman hit two free throws, a jumper, a layup and another jumper to spark an 11-0 run.

Sunday, he struck twice. SIU was down 31-25 and appeared rattled five minutes into the second half. Dearman's eight consecutive points helped keep the Salukis within 35-33. Starting with 7:46 to go, his two layups and jump shot in succession were part of a 13-2 burst in the next 6:41 that gave SIU a 59-48 lead and buried the Bears.

No. 2 seed Creighton beat No. 3 Wichita State 70-69, its second one-point win in the tournament. The Bluejays, trailing 40-30 at the half, tied it at 49 with 10:39 left. Creighton went ahead to stay at 68-66 with 1:32 to go on Kyle Korver's 3-pointer. Larry House's jam off a length-of-the-court pass 13 seconds from the horn enabled Creighton to survive Randy Burns' last-second 3-pointer.

"At some points in a game," Dearman said, "it gets like I can sense I'm about to get hot. You get a couple of baskets, you get into a rhythm. There are times when you just have to take control. If the other team's giving you a chance, you take it. Kent (Williams) and I, we'll look at each other and it's like, "Time to get something going.' That's when I really like to go at them and make them try to stop me."

Going to Dearman at crucial times isn't always the plan. "Sometimes it's just who gets hot," he said. "I got a couple of shots to go my way, a couple of roll-ins. Me and Kent, this is our senior year. It's our job to take over for the team when it comes down to crunch time. And I'm willing to take on that challenge. If I miss, I'm willing to take it all on my shoulders. If I hit, I'm the one carrying the team." Williams leads SIU in scoring at 15.7 a game; Dearman (14.1) is second.

Sometimes going to Dearman is the plan. "As the game goes on," Weber said, "we set things up to get it to Jermaine, and Kent, and they've responded." Williams did it with two 3-pointers in the Salukis' late run.

SIU (24-5) was the MVC regular-season champ. With the top two seeds in tonight's final, Weber said he believes the Salukis are in the NCAA field, as they were a year ago when they lost to Creighton for the title, sweated out an uncertain week, got a bid and reached the Sweet 16. Creighton (28-4) has the most wins in Division I.

"Last year we had to walk off that court and watch (the Bluejays) celebrate," Weber said. "It kind of stuck in your gut. I told the kids, "Remember that. Remember how we had to watch them.' Our goal is for us to celebrate on that stage."