Southern Illinois University Edwardsville men’s basketball players finally felt relief Saturday.
The Cougars ended their 15-game losing streak and picked up their first Ohio Valley Conference victory with a 78-59 decision over Eastern Illinois at the Vadalabene Center. It was the final game of the season for both teams.
SIUE, which hadn’t won since Dec. 28 against Division II Missouri S&T, avoided becoming the first winless team in the OVC since Tennessee-Martin in the 2011-12 season. Only six teams have been winless in the league.
Senior Burak Eslik had 22 points and four steals, while senior Josh White, an Edwardsville High School graduate, had a career-high 20 points for the Cougars (6-24, 1-15).
“Before the game, we knew it was going to be a special night,” said Eslik, a native of Turkey. “We talked, especially the seniors, to the team about how we were going to leave it all on the court. That’s what we did for 40 minutes. We played great.
“This program is building. When I leave from here, this is how I’m going to remember the season.”
“This is a testament to the guys we have,” White said. “We’re mentally tough. We stuck together through all the tough times and pulled one out. Really, for the seniors, we wanted to leave a good impression on the younger guys to come back and know what it takes, how to win and keep on pushing through tough times.”
After the game, second-year SIUE coach Jon Harris stood at midcourt and thanked the crowd of 1,805 for sticking with the Cougars, and vowed that better days are ahead.
“Probably a little relief, but more proud, honestly,” Harris said of his emotions as the final seconds expired. “We’ve been in these situations a lot this year, but we haven’t been able to finish. So really, I’m just proud of our group for finishing. And being strong enough mentally to do it. They really wanted it, and for all the right reasons.
“We never had any negativity in our locker room. We never had any bickering. No one was ever questioning our game plan, questioning the staff, their minutes or the rotation. As hard as this year was, it was a fun team to coach, if you can believe that, through all the losses.”
Despite the losing, Eslik said the Cougars never lost faith.
“We’re like brothers. We’re like family,” he said. “All season, it was so tough, but we always stayed together. It paid at the end. Everybody did something. Everyone played for each other.”
The Cougars won all the hustle plays: loose balls, deflected rebounds, tipped passes — it didn’t matter. SIUE gained possession of the ball and stymied the Panthers’ comeback efforts.
“That was something we worked on in practice,” said White, who also made three 3-pointers. “We had a good week of practice. It’s who we are. We flew around and tried to get everything. It felt good to have the ball tip our way tonight. It’s something to always cherish and remember.”
Junior Jalen Henry chipped in with 13 points and six rebounds, and senior Devin Thornton added 12 points for the Cougars. Eastern Illinois, which defeated SIUE 75-60 on Jan. 28 in Charleston, finished 14-15 and 6-10.
Harris likes the nucleus of the team for next season, led by Henry, junior Keenan Simmons, freshman Christian Ellis and sophomore Carlos Anderson, an Alton graduate.
“It will be a huge offseason for us,” Harris said. “We’ve got to add some key pieces, but we really like what we having coming back. Our freshmen have done some good things, and Jalen and Keenan will be our seniors next year. We added a kid like (6-foot-9) Julian (Torres) and we added (6-8) Bill Awet. We’ll add two other guys that I think can help us.
“Recruiting never stops. The offseason is about attacking your weaknesses. We’ve got guys who are young, guys who have to fill out physically. They’ll attack that in the weight room. They’ll gain agility, gain quickness, gain power and attack weaknesses on the court.”