The basketball gods finally smiled on Southeast Missouri State University.
Southeast, which has suffered its share of disheartening losses this season, turned the tables Tuesday night by slipping past Western Illinois 53-52 in front of an announced crowd of 3,994 at the Show Me Center.
Not only did the Indians break a five-game losing streak and improve to 10-16 with the non-conference victory, they also avenged an earlier nine-point loss to the Leathernecks (7-16) in Macomb, Ill.
"It feels great to finally win again," sophomore guard Derek Winans said.
But the Indians sure didn't make things easy -- what else is new? -- as they saw a 14-point second-half lead evaporate into a late one-point deficit.
And it took an unlikely hero to finally lift the Indians. Junior center Brandon Griffin, who has had an impressive rookie season but is statistically Southeast's worst free-throw shooter, sank two foul shots with six seconds remaining for the game's final points.
"I was a little nervous, but I had a lot of confidence," Griffin said. "I thought I would hit them."
Ray Harris drilled a 3-pointer with 55 seconds left to put WIU up 52-51 for its first lead since the game's opening moments. After Southeast missed a shot, WIU's Barry Welsh misfired on the front end of a one-and-one with 26 seconds remaining to keep the Indians down by a point.
After two Southeast timeouts, the Indians had problems inbounding the basketball, which got loose near mid-court. Griffin appeared to have the inside track for the ball in a scramble with WIU's J.D. Summers, who was -- much to the dismay of Leathernecks coach Jim Kerwin -- called for a foul.
"It looked like from where I was sitting, nothing at all. It should have been a no-call," said a composed Kerwin. "But you're on the road and those things happen."
There was still the matter of Griffin, a 55-percent free-throw shooter entering the game, needing to make the front end of a one-and-one simply to force a tie. He calmly nailed both foul shots, making him perfect in five attempts from the charity stripe.
"I've been working on my free throws the last couple of weeks, every day before and after practice," Griffin said. "It's the first time I've ever won a game with free throws like that."
Griffin, who has indeed improved his free-throw percentage considerably after being in the 40s early in the season, recorded his 12th double-double of the campaign by scoring 21 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Griffin hit eight of 10 shots from the field.
"Brandon really stepped up in a pressure situation and came through," Southeast coach Gary Garner said. "That says a lot about him."
The Leathernecks still had a chance to win after Griffin's heroics, but a 3-pointer was off the mark at the buzzer.
Winans added 12 points for the Indians while junior forward Damarcus Hence contributed 10 in the low-scoring, defensive-minded affair.
Harris led WIU with 15 points and powerful forward Luis Rivas had 13. In the last meeting with Southeast, Rivas and Shawn Mason -- another powerful inside presence -- each scored 18 points. Mason did not score Tuesday.
"I thought the biggest thing was we held their post players in check after they killed us last time," Garner said. "We did a great job of double-teaming their post players. Derek Winans and Kevin Roberts did a great job helping out down there."
WIU shot 60 percent in the previous meeting, including 73 percent in the second half. Tuesday, the Leathernecks shot just 34 percent, although the Indians weren't much better at 38 percent.
"This was maybe our best defensive effort of the year," Garner said.
Southeast led 31-21 at halftime behind Griffin's 15 points and opened up three second-half leads of 14 points, including 45-31 with 13:10 remaining.
But the Indians then went into an offensive funk as they scored just eight points the rest of the way. Southeast had no field goals during the final 8:14, when they had just four points -- all on Griffin free throws in the last three minutes.
"We put drama into it again," Winans said with a smile. "We just got out of our game plan and stopped running our offense, and they hit some shots. But the main thing is we won."
And heading into Saturday night's final home game of the season against Austin Peay, Garner believes the narrow victory might serve the Indians well.
"We haven't been winning these close games lately, and I think this could really help us down the line," Garner said.