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Salukis can't make it easy

On the back of the T-shirts they wore in warmups was the inspirational slogan they came up with midway through a season that seemed to be taking them nowhere: Who will be celebrating Monday night?

It wasn't Southern Illinois. Not by a long shot.

Creighton, which beat SIU in last year's Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship, blew the Salukis out of this one 80-56. It was over by halftime, during which cold-shooting SIU trailed by as much as 28.

Now it must do what it did a season ago: wait and worry.

This season the Salukis won the MVC regular-season championship they shared with Creighton last season. Still, after falling hard to the No. 19 Bluejays, SIU will count the days and nights, the hours and minutes until 6 p.m. Sunday. Only then will it learn if it earned an invitation to the NCAA Tournament as one of the 34 at-large teams in the 65-team field.

"I believe we should be in," coach Bruce Weber said. "I don't think one game like this should make a difference."

MVC commissioner Doug Elgin, who last year completed a four-year term on the selection committee, agreed. "I think Southern Illinois' body of work during the season outweighs a game like this. It has done everything you can ask a team to do, and that's win a (season) championship," he said. "And I think it's significant that the Missouri Valley champion during the regular season has been an at-large team the past nine years."

Still, there are no guarantees. There are, however, a lot of ifs.

"I guess like last year we've got to hope that there are no big upsets in the big conferences and that everybody that's supposed to win their tournaments wins," said senior guard Kent Williams, whose 13 points were second to Darren Brooks' 15. "It's not going to be the easiest week."

SIU scored its first points on two free throws five minutes into the game to trail 10-2. It missed its first 11 shots from the field until reserve forward Brad Korn hit a jumper with 6:47 gone. Seconds later, Creighton's Nate Funk made it 16-4 with a jumper.

"Once we got down we really started rushing things and trying to get right back in it too fast," Williams said. "You've got to take your time. Obviously we were cold in the first half, so that didn't help, and they were hot."

The Salukis trailed 42-16 at intermission, scoring the fewest first-half points in MVC championship game history on 15.6 percent shooting. Their five field goals (on 32 shots) matched the timeouts Weber called, trying in vain to stop the bleeding.

"You laugh; you yell at them," Weber said. "Every emotion I had I used in every huddle. Nothing semed to work."

The Bluejays widened their lead to 33 in the second half. The closest it got was 69-50 with four minutes to play.

Weber said waiting a year ago for the selection committee to announce the teams that made it was one of the most nerve-racking weeks of his life:

"Panic set in (the day after the 84-76 loss to Creighton in the MVC title game). Everywhere I went people were talking about whether we were in or not. That's all I could think about. The grocery store, out to dinner with the family, recruiting trips. I tried to get my mind off it but it was always there."

The Salukis got their invitation and reached the Sweet 16.