San Jose, Calif. A funny thing happened at San Jose's HP Pavilion Thursday night - a Missouri Valley Conference game broke out.
The underdog Southern Illinois University Salukis clipped the wings of the high-flying Jayhawks. For most of the game, the smaller SIU team forced Kansas to play its game.
Basketball fans around the country call the Salukis' style ugly. In Carbondale, it's know as effective.
If indeed this defensive, grind-it-out version of Dr. Naismith's game is ugly, the Salukis uglied the game up just enough to give themselves a chance to win.
Giving up several inches at every position, the under-Dawgs out-rebounded Kansas 31-26. Seventeen of those rebounds were on the offensive end. The Salukis forced the No. 1 seeded Jayhawks into 19 turnovers - tying the season high.
Not that the Salukis are looking at the narrow loss as a moral victory. They didn't, and they don't.
This is a game they felt they could win. This is a game they think they should have won. They weren't cocky about that fact. They just believe in what they do.
What they did Thursday night was turn the biggest game of their seasons - of their lives - into something they're familiar with: a slugfest. This offensive line of a basketball team battled, scrapped and clawed its way to the precipice of the first Elite Eight berth in school history.
"I don't know if it was a Valley game or not, but we tried to keep it at our pace," said SIU point guard Bryan Mullins. "We did for 38 to 39 minutes, but fell a little bit short. I definitely think they respect us a little more than they did before."
In the end, Kansas' talent and defensive abilities prevailed.
As Randal Falker, SIU's 6-foot-7 center noted, the Jayhawks took advantage of their superior size down the stretch. In the meantime, several open looks, notably by Matt Shaw and Jamaal Tatum, rattled out.
In the end, that was the difference in this game.
"We outscrapped them for balls," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "The important ones they got to, and that's where the game was decided."
Not that the game started that way. The Jayhawks sprinted to an early 8-2 lead, causing Lowery to call an early timeout. It looked as if Goliath was going to smack David around.
"They hit us right in the mouth," Falker said. "Pop. We had to get our balance back, kind of like a boxer. We gave them a bear hug and came right back at them. You hit us; we'll bounce back and take another one if we need to."
Kansas coach Bill Self took notice.
"We played a very well-coached, tough basketball team that can play with anybody, anywhere," he said. "We feel very fortunate tonight."
Fortunate was not a word being tossed around a somber SIU locker room.
Although proud of their effort against an excellent Kansas team, the Salukis walked away from HP Pavilion feeling empty. Not because they didn't give Kansas their best shot, but because that best shot wasn't quite enough.
"After we told our seniors goodbye, that was the toughest locker room I've ever had to be in," Lowery said.
- Les Winkeler is the sports editor of The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org