CARBONDALE — Milik Yarbrough drove inside and threw down a dunk. That gave Illinois State's basketball team a 14-point lead with 7:50 left in Saturday's Missouri Valley Conference game.
What happened after that can only be described as a complete Redbird meltdown.
SIU used a 20-2 run to take a lead it did not relinquish. Armon Fletcher scored 22 of his game-high 26 points in the second half as the Salukis stunned ISU, 74-70, before a delirious SIU Arena crowd of 3,227.
“Personally, me and Milik let the team down as far as our competitive level consistently,” said ISU junior Keyshawn Evans. “We can't be guys who compete 20 of 40 minutes. We have to be guys who compete 35 or 40 of 40 minutes, the entire game, and play hard.
“I blame it on my bad leadership and not committing the entire game and making coach (Dan Muller) yell at me to compete.”
Phil Fayne, who led the Redbirds (9-9, 3-3 MVC) with 24 points and 10 rebounds, was absolved by Muller afterwards along with Matt Hein, David Ndiaye and freshman Elijah Clarance, who enjoyed his best game as a Redbird.
The rest of the Redbirds weren't so lucky in what undoubtedly was the season's toughest loss to stomach.
“It's my job to do it (push the right buttons) and I fully accept that,” said Muller. “But in the end, good gracious, when you have juniors out there who won't compete consistently maybe it's time to play some other guys more. It's up to them.
“We've taught them how to compete and held them accountable. We've motivated them and gotten on them and pushed them and played big games. It's not just one guy ... We need to grow up and get a lot tougher.”
Evans added 11 points for ISU. The Redbirds shot 56.9 percent from the field, which is usually more than enough to win a road game, but committed 20 turnovers, including six in the final eight minutes. Yarbrough finished with six points, five assists and seven turnovers.
“Some of our turnovers are maddening,” said Muller. “We did a lot of good things until down the stretch. They (the Salukis) were short-handed, but they kept fighting.”
SIU (11-8, 3-3) scored on 14 of its last 16 possessions while shooting 69.6 percent from the field in the second half. Sean Lloyd added 14 points, while center Kavion Pippen contributed 13 points and eight rebounds.
“Honestly, we are immature. Coach says that and I agree with that 100 percent,” said Evans. “It starts with me being one of the older guys. I can't be one of the immature guys. Phil played his butt off. I would say it's my competing and being an example to the younger guys.”
SIU coach Barry Hinson called it “a typical Illinois State-Southern Illinois game” that usually is decided down the stretch.
“The biggest reason we made the turn(around) is we guarded and made them turn it over,” said Hinson.
The Redbirds committed three turnovers in their next four possessions after going ahead, 61-47. Pippen's layup started a 9-0 run, culminated by Tyler Smithpeters' 3-pointer, that got the Salukis within 61-56 with 5:36 left.
Fayne momentarily halted the SIU charge with a dunk off a tipped Yarbrough pass. But the Salukis proceeded to score the next 11 points, all by Fletcher and Lloyd, to go ahead 67-63 with 2:55 left.
“I would say defensively we let up and we got comfortable,” said Fayne. “That's something we need to work on, especially down the stretch the rest of the league (season) and going into the tournament.”
Fayne's rebound basket drew ISU within 70-68 with 27.5 seconds left. Fletcher split a pair of free throws, but Yarbrough badly misfired a 3-pointer for a tie and later had a charging call for his fifth foul to seal the deal.
“Everyone can feel it slip away, but mature players are the ones who say, 'We still got this and are in it,'” said Fayne. “You want to look up and keep playing the game until you hear the buzzer.”
SIU has been decimated by injuries that forced six players to log at least 25 minutes each on Saturday, with Fletcher going 39 minutes and Lloyd 35 despite playing with a mask to protect a broken nose. That fact was not lost on Muller.
“I thought Lloyd, Smithpeters and Fletcher just out-competed us,” said the ISU coach.
A bright spot for the Redbirds was Clarance, who played a season-high 23 minutes as Madison Williams sat out with a balky knee.
Clarance scored seven points to go with three rebounds, three assists and two steals. He missed almost of the first 11 weeks of practice and the start of the season with a stress fracture and has struggled since returning.
“I'm happy for him. He can play a lot better, which is exciting,” said Muller. “We saw some glimpses of what we're expecting and wanting, but it takes time. He's had a great attitude in practice. It's really been hard for Elijah, but he's a great kid who wants to get better and has a great attitude.”
Muller said he didn't know if Williams would be available when ISU returns to action at 6 p.m. Wednesday against Interstate 74 rival Bradley at Redbird Arena.