Columbus, Ohio Compared to practice, sometimes Southern Illinois' games are almost like a day off for the Salukis.
Driven by the tenacious defense instilled during those workouts - and three big three-pointers by Jamaal Tatum - Southern Illinois pulled away from Virginia Tech, 63-48, Sunday in the second round of the West Regional.
Tatum, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, scored 21 points. The Salukis have won 15 of 16, and set a school record for victories in a season.
This win was due to defense - which is nothing new for kids who must buy into the concept that defense wins games or else you might want to find another place to play.
"We play so hard in practice that when we go against other teams it's almost easier," guard Bryan Mullins said.
The Salukis advance to meet Kansas University in a regional semifinal Thursday night in San Jose, Calif.
"A lot of teams go out and say, 'I'm going to stop my man.' But if we don't stop our man, we know we have help," Tatum said. "Coach talks about not playing selfish defense. We know that our teammates will help us out."
Tony Young added 17, Mullins 11 and Randall Falker 10 points and 12 rebounds for Southern Illinois (29-6), which surpassed the victory total from the 2000-01 team that also made it to the round of 16.
It wasn't all defense. The Salukis matched their season best with 12 three-pointers on 21 attempts.
"Since everyone knows us for our defense and we play so hard on defense, people don't realize that we can score," Mullins said. "We've been getting a lot better on offense. That showed today."
Jamon Gordon had 16 points, and Deron Washington added 15 for fifth-seeded Virginia Tech (22-12), which hadn't been held to fewer than 54 points all season. Zabian Dowdell, a first-team All-ACC guard who came in averaging 18 a game, scored seven points.
"They are a strong defensive team," Washington said. "We couldn't get any easy buckets to get us going. It was frustrating."
In practice, the Salukis play a game with no fouls and no out of bounds that coach Chris Lowery calls "Keep Playing." There's no whining, which develops toughness.
"That's how we teach them, just to play no matter the circumstance," Lowery said.
Tatum had hit the decisive three to break a late tie when the teams met back in November at a tournament in Florida, a game the Salukis won, 69-64.
SIU's fans chanted "De-fense! De-fense!" and the Salukis - third in the nation allowing 56.3 points a game - responded during a 16-2 run bridging the halves. Forget flashy dunks or no-look passes, the spurt was built on man-to-man defense and a couple of timely shots. The crowd cheered louder after defensive stops than after baskets.
Ahead 22-20, the Salukis stretched their lead when Tatum - who later banked in a three from the top of the key and also hit a free throw on a bank shot - made two shots behind the arc to close the half for a 28-20 lead.
It was the fewest points Virginia Tech scored in a half this season.
The Salukis then opened the second half with Tatum hitting another three to push the lead to 31-20. For much of the rest of the game, SIU was content to spread the floor, melt away time and put up a shot with a few seconds left on the shot clock - like a game of keepaway with scholarships.
Young's third three gave the Salukis a 44-31 edge at the midpoint of the second half. Against such an aggressive defense, and an offense intent on keeping the score down, the Hokies had no chance.
"It's very, very simple: you make shots, you win. You don't make shots, you don't win," said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, whose team was outscored by 30 points behind the arc. "We didn't make shots. We had good looks early in the game but we didn't make them."
The biggest cheer of the second half from SIU fans came when Tatum put up a shot with a second left on the shot clock - and then got his own rebound.
Tony Boyle started in place of the Salukis' third-leading scorer, Matt Shaw, who sprained an ankle at halftime of their 71-61 first-round win over Holy Cross. The Salukis didn't miss a beat.
Besides, it's not individuals but the way their team plays defense that sets Southern Illinois apart.
"Some of the toughest days I've had as a basketball player have been at practice going against my teammates," Tatum said. "I know how hard our defense is because I go against it every day."
Somebody else will find that out next week.