LEBANON — John Steppe's career-best performance on his 22nd birthday wasn't enough to save the McKendree Bearcats on Saturday.
Steppe, a 6-foot-4 senior from Effingham, had 32 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots as the Bearcats lost to Southern Indiana 78-68.
Steppe's big game was watched by his own personal fan club. About 60 family members and friends, all wearing purple Steppe shirts with the No. 10 on them, visited from Effingham.
The McKendree pep band played "Happy Birthday" to Steppe before the start of the second half as fans sang.
"I was smiling from ear to ear. I really enjoyed that," Steppe said. "All the cheering makes the legs a little lighter and makes them move a little faster, so it was good.
"I probably felt better than I've ever felt tonight. I have to admit, having the 60 fans up there, family and friends, made it a lot easier."
Steppe was 10-for-18 from the field, including two 3-pointers, and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. His previous personal-high in points was 27, set Nov. 11, 2012, against Ohio Dominican.
"When you start seeing the ball go down early in the game, it makes it a lot easier," said Steppe, who had 14 points at halftime. "Whenever you miss your first couple of shots, it makes it harder. But tonight, I got going early and it kept flowing."
Bearcats coach Harry Statham lauded Steppe's effort.
"He did a great job. There's no doubt about it," said Statham, whose team lost its ninth straight and fell to 7-14 overall and 1-10 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. "John's had a good year this year. He's improved a lot, I think, from last year. He's playing a lot steadier."
McKendree, which led 25-20 with 5:55 to play in the first half, trailed 37-36 at the break. Southern Indiana (16-3, 9-2 GLVC), ranked 13th in the NCAA Division II poll, finally shook the Bearcats with a 7-1 run that produced a 62-54 lead with 10:14 left.
The Screaming Eagles built a 78-63 lead in the closing 2 1/2 minutes before McKendree scored the final five points of the game.
Junior Clinton Happe and freshman Brandon Drum scored 11 points apiece for McKendree. Senior Keith DeWitt had 20 points and 11 rebounds for Southern Indiana, which also got 19 points from junior Lawrence Thomas and 18 points from junior Taylor Wischmeier.
"It's been a long year," Steppe said. "But I guarantee you it won't be like this forever. We're going to battle through these next seven games and hopefully get a couple of wins here and there. Next year, McKendree will bounce back."
Southern Indiana 73, McKendree 63
The Bearcats, playing an inspired first half, led by six points at the intermission. But they were outscored 41-25 in the second half and fell to the Screaming Eagles.
The game was the first-ever between the Bearcats and Southern Indiana and it matched former Edwardsville High teammates Caty Ponce and Mary O'Keefe.
Ponce, a sophomore guard at McKendree, had a team-high 15 points and four assists. O'Keefe, a 6-0 sophomore center at Southern Indiana, scored 10 of her 12 points in the second half and was one of four Screaming Eagles in double figures.
"We've never played against each other in the 10, 11, 12 years we've known each other," Ponce said. "So we've been talking about this day for a long time."
McKendree fell to 6-13 overall and 1-10 in the GLVC. Southern Indiana, which was led by junior Stephanie Carpenter's 19 points, improved to 15-4 and 7-4.
O'Keefe scored seven consecutive points for the Screaming Eagles in a 54-second span as they took a 61-50 lead with 9:14 to play.
"One of my main problems is being consistent," O'Keefe said. "So I've been trying to really work on that. The second half, I think, it started to come out more. But again, I need to do that in the first half, too."
McKendree led 38-32 at the half on the strength of 63-percent shooting from the field (15-for-24). The Bearcats twice led by 13 points and enjoyed an 11-0 run that temporarily put them in control.
"I think we just mix up halves, which ones we decide to play," Ponce said. "We've played a good half with every team this year. It's just putting it all together.
"Today, I thought we played a better all-around game, but it's just the little things that killed us."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.