Troy University football coach Larry Blakeney has said it better than anybody: “Wins are like girlfriends. They’re not all gonna be pretty.”
True dat, Larry. True dat.
So I’m not at all concerned that Mighty MO State had to sweat a little bit in a 64-51 Missouri Valley Conference win over Southern Illinois at JQH Arena Jan. 12. From here on out, style points are irrelevant and there is no such thing as a bad, or ugly, win. The “W” is all that matters.
And that’s what they got against the Salukis, a traditional nemesis, Wednesday night in a pretty workmanlike performance. There was nothing stellar, glamorous, or otherwise eye-popping about this one. They just flat got it done, basically with two big runs. The first was an 18-2 surge in the first half to erase an early SIU lead. The second burst was 8-0 after the Salukis had chipped a 14-point lead down to four.
Credit freshman Nathan Scheer – whose praises we’ve sung on this very blog – and senior Nafis Ricks for making the key plays. Scheer scored just five points, but he made them count. He got two on a putback early in the second half, temporarily giving the Bears a seven-point cushion with 12 minutes to play, and later drained a 3-pointer to make it a 52-41 game with 6:34 remaining on the clock.
Ricks, meanwhile, knocked down the jumper that preceded Scheer’s big trey and drew the fourth foul on SIU point guard Mykel Cleveland. Cleveland later fouled out. SIU coach Chris Lowery said his team played “haywire” when Cleveland was out of the game and paid this semi-backhanded compliment to Ricks in The Southern:
“They fought the storm, and Ricks hit two big baskets. When we were down four, he hit the next two plays. He didn’t do anything the whole game until they needed him.”
Wow…that’s quite a compliment coach.
Missouri State is still the lone unbeaten in Valley play six games in, only one up on both preseason favorite Wichita State and surprising Indiana State. At 14-3 overall, the Bears are starting to put together a pretty good resume for the NCAA Tournament. But it only takes a slip-up or two to derail all this momentum, and there are two prime slip-up opportunities coming right at the Bears.
The first is Sunday, Jan. 16, at Bradley – another trap game. The Braves are winless in Valley play, but Carver Arena has rarely been kind to the Bears, who will have to be refreshed and focused to pull out a win.
From there it’s on to Terre Haute Jan. 19, where Indiana State has been nails on the Hulman Center floor. The Sycamores are 6-0 there this season, 3-0 in Valley play. Their average margin of victory in Valley home games this season? Try 18 points, in defeating Bradley, Illinois State and Northern Iowa. Yes, Bradley and Ill. State are both off to 0-6 league starts, but that 70-45 win over UNI was an eye-opener. The Sycs are the early surprise in the MVC, sitting in second place at 5-1, so this game is anything but a gimme.
Should the Bears sweep this road swing, though, they’ll be 8-0 in Valley play, 16-3 overall, and carrying some significant buzz into the home stretch. That stretch includes six of their final 10 league games on the JQH Arena floor and one crucial Bracket Buster road game. More chances to build momentum, or lose it.