Sophomore Jalen Henry and a deep bench helped make a happy homecoming for first-year SIUE head basketball coach and Edwardsville native Jon Harris.
Henry led four in double figures with 18 points and had a game-high nine rebounds to lead the Cougars to a 79-70, season-opening over Arkansas State Friday night.
With his parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and hometown friends watching from the red Vadalabene Center seats, Harris picked up his first victory as a head coach.
“It’s range of emotions, honestly,” said Harris, a 1998 graduate of Edwardsville High School. “I’m very excited. It’s special experience for me to see the guys come together and grow.”
Carlos Anderson, a true freshman from Alton, was part of the starting five and contributed seven rebounds and seven points, including a three-point basket with a little more than four minutes left to turn a four-point game into a seven-point Cougar advantage.
“It was a little nervous to start,” he said. “Right now it just feels like a blessing.”
Our guys played like a veteran ball club tonight. Outside of the first six minutes of the game when we gave up some easy baskets, it was great for first-year guys to come out and do what they did.
Jon Harris, SIUE head coach on his young team’s effort
The game was tied 37-37 at half time, but SIUE captured the lead for good on a 3-point basket by Connor Wheeler, a junior transfer from John A. Logan Community College near Carbondale.
The shot was the centerpiece of a 9-0 run that put SIUE on top 50-45 with more than 12 minutes left. When Arkansas State closed the lead back to two, Wheeler drained another three. The Red Wolves never got any closer.
In 14 minutes on the court, Wheeler had nine points, all from three-point range. He led a bench effort that contributed 22 points to the victory.
“We’ve got nine, 10 or 11 guys who we feel can come in and help us win ball games,” Harris said. “Conner showed that tonight by coming in and playing some great minutes.”
The Cougars were 30 of 40 from the free throw line, including 11 of their last 12 to cinch the win.
30-40 Cougars free throw shooting on the night, including 11 of 12 to close
“Our guys played like a veteran ball club tonight,” Harris said of his young team. “They did a great job executing the game plan tonight. Outside of the first six minutes of the game when we gave up some easy baskets, it was great for first-year guys to come out and do what they did.”
Henry was one of four Cougars in double figures. Burak Eslik scored 13 while Yemi Makanjuola and Grant Fiorentinos had 11 each sharing the time at the post.
Makanjuola also had seven rebounds. Keenan Simmons had three of SIUE’s five blocked shots.
Arkansas State hit seven of 20 three-point basket attempts. Devin Carter hit four of them as part of a game-high 22 points. Donte Thomas added 17 for the Red Wolves and Anthony Livington had 14.
The Cougars (1-0) will be back at home for a regional rivarly game against St. Louis Wednesday at 7 p.m. The Billikens open their season Sunday against Hartford. Arkansas State has its home opener Monday against Lyon College.