(MARK SCHIEFELBEIN ~ Associated Press)
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Randal Falker had a feeling that the first team to score 50 points would win the defensive struggle between Southern Illinois and Missouri State.
He was right.
Falker scored 20 points to help the 16th-ranked Salukis to a 51-47 win on Tuesday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Missouri Valley Conference.
"The defense did it for us. It was a dogfight, and in a dogfight, the first one to 50 wins," Falker said. "We got there first. Thankfully, we won."
It appeared that SIU (22-5, 13-3) might be on the verge of seeing its eight-game winning streak end late in the second half, but Falker and Jamaal Tatum combined for seven-straight points to put the game out of reach for Missouri State.
The Salukis, who have the fourth-best scoring defense in the nation allowing 56 points per game, stymied the Bears.
Missouri State came in averaging 75.7 points.
"Everybody on our team stepped up and contributed. We had people makings stops, making shots, making free throws," Tatum said. "We really executed down the stretch like a veteran team."
SIU watched a 27-22 halftime lead melt away as Missouri State opened the second half with an 11-6 run to tie the game at 33. A zone defense that Missouri State started to use early in the second limited SIU to just two field goals in the first 9:03.
Missouri State took its first lead on a basket by Blake Ahearn with 7:50 left to make it 37-35.
Missouri State went up 43-40 on a shot by Tyler Chaney with 3:14 left, but Southern Illinois answered with a 5-0 run. Tatum's 3-pointer with 1:09 left gave the Salukis a 45-43 lead.
Blake Ahearn had a chance to recapture the lead, but he missed an open 3-pointer from the corner.
The miss surprised Tatum.
"When Blake Ahearn got open in the corner ... it was in. I would have bet $100 it was going in. But that was really his only clear-cut open shot of the night. We was open. For him to miss it and us get the rebound, that was huge," he said.
Missouri State coach Barry Hinson said his team didn't play well enough in the final minute to win.
"I don't think we can guard much better than we guarded tonight ... but they made the plays down the stretch. They made their free throws and executed to perfection. That's what good teams do and that's why they are in the top 15. We did not deserve to win the ballgame by how we executed from the free-throw line and down the stretch. I think that's pretty clear," Hinson said.
Tyler Chaney led Missouri State with 13 points. Dale Lamberth added 11 points.
Neither team shot well from the field. Southern Illinois was just 17-for-52 (32.7 percent) while Missouri State was just 14-for-37 (37.8 percent).