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Cougars advance to play Notre Dame

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BYU 82, So. Illinois 57

PROVO -- Only hours after pounding Southern Illinois, 82-57, late Monday night, BYU players and coaches awoke -- presuming they slept -- and caught an early morning flight Tuesday. The Cougars' destination? South Bend, Ind.That's where they will face Notre Dame in a nationally televised game Wednesday night in the third round of the National Invitation Tournament. The winner will earn a berth in next week's NIT Final Four at New York City's Madison Square Garden. Even before BYU tipped off its second-round game against the Salukis, tournament officials had determined that the Fighting Irish, who downed Xavier at home earlier in the evening, would host their third straight NIT contest. Never mind the Cougars drew 16,949 fans at the Marriott Center, nearly 6,000 more than the capacity of Notre Dame's Joyce Center.

"When we found out we had to go to Notre Dame, we were disappointed at first," said BYU's Mekeli Wesley, who scored 16 points against SIU. "But we're excited to be playing in the postseason. Let alone our third game of the postseason."

Indeed, BYU, winners of six of its past seven games, continues to roll. The Cougars didn't waste much time on Monday, racing to a 13-2 advantage in the opening minutes (Southern Illinois' first field goal didn't come until the 12:57 mark) and never surrendering the lead. Buoyed by the noisy crowd, the Cougars were in control all the way. But the Salukis didn't lie down and let the Cougars make their travel plans. They got to within 34-26 at halftime and cut the deficit to six in the second half before BYU pulled away for good.

"We didn't play a perfect basketball game," said coach Steve Cleveland. "In fact, at times it was a little dysfunctional. But we did what we had to do. The thing that we did was guard."

Yes, the Cougars played solid defense, holding the Salukis' three seniors -- Chris Thunell, Derrick Tilmon and Ricky Collum -- to a combined 16 points, 13 below what they had been averaging during the season, on a combined 5-of-21 shooting. As a team, SIU shot 28 percent, compared to 51 percent for BYU. The Cougars also forced 22 turnovers.

"Our whole thing was to get ball movement," said Saluki coach Bruce Weber. "We never got any ball movement."

The only two players who hurt the Cougars were a pair of freshmen. Guard Kent Williams scored 17, including four 3-pointers, and forward Jermaine Dearman chipped in 10 off the bench.

Wesley was a key to his team's quick start as he scored 13 of BYU's first 26 points. When he was slapped with his fourth personal foul early in the second half, Cleveland sent him to the bench. No problem, really. Though the Salukis did whittle the Cougars' lead to 42-36 with about 15 minutes remaining, Terrell Lyday answered by draining a 3-pointer that ignited a run during which BYU outscored SIU 40-19 prior to the final buzzer. That stretch saw Lyday drop in a couple more 3's and finish with a game-high 19 points. Meanwhile, Michael Vranes (13 points) added a putback and a 3-pointer; Eric Nielsen (10 points) calmly sunk a couple of jumpers; and David Nielsen (eight points) scored big baskets in the paint.

"We thought we could pressure them (defensively)," Weber said. "Their go-to guys produced. Some of their other kids were better than we thought."

When asked about BYU's upcoming challenge, Weber looked almost relieved that he doesn't have to visit Notre Dame. He was one of many observers who knew, despite BYU's large and enthusiastic crowd, that the deck was stacked against the Cougars.

"It didn't matter who it was," said Weber, a former longtime assistant at another Indiana school, Purdue. "They (NIT officials) want Notre Dame in New York. I've been through this before. They decide who they want in New York, then they try to get them there."

Cleveland says he can understand the NIT's decision to play the game at South Bend. And he knows it's going to be tough to win on the road.

"Obviously, we have our work cut out for us in the next game," Cleveland said. "But this is what it's all about. No matter what happens at Notre Dame, we have done what we have to get there. It will be a quick trip and there will be very little preparation time. But it gives us an opportunity that has been a long time coming at this institution."

Too bad for the Cougars they can't take their fans with them to the Joyce Center. BYU athletic director Val Hale told NIT officials to expect 20,000-22,000 if the Fighting Irish came to the Marriott Center.

No way. This is, after all, Notre Dame, a school with a national following. The NIT wants the Irish to play at the Garden, and ESPN wants the TV ratings. The best way to ensure that the Golden Domers appear in the Big Apple was to schedule this game in South Bend. Sorry, Provo.

In other NIT action:

NOTRE DAME 76, XAVIER 64: At South Bend, Ind., David Graves scored 24 points and Troy Murphy added 21 as Notre Dame beat Xavier Monday night in the NIT second round, giving the Irish their first 20-win season in more than a decade.

The Musketeers (21-12) took 36 3-pointers but hit only four over the final 10 minutes.

Xavier cut the Notre Dame (20-14) lead to 64-61 on Maurice McAfee's 3-pointer with 2:09 left. But Murphy converted a three-point play on Notre Dame's next possession, and the Irish hit 9-of-10 from the line over the final 1:19 to seal the win.

KENT 81, VILLANOVA 67: At Villanova, Pa., Kyrem Massey scored 17 points and Demetric Shaw added 12, eight straight in a clinching second-half run, as Kent State defeated Villanova Monday night to advance to the third round of the NIT.

Gary Buchanan led Villanova with 20 points and Jermaine Medley had 11. John Whorton added 15 for Kent and Andrew Mitchell had 14.

PENN STATE 105, SIENA 103: At State College, Pa., Titus Ivory hit the game-winning basket with 2.4 seconds to play as Penn State, which blew an eight-point lead in the final two minutes, beat Siena Monday in a wild second-round NIT game.

Joe Crispin had 28 points, Jarrett Stephens added 22 and the Nittany Lions shot 59 percent from the field.

Ivory's basket sent fans pouring onto the court as if they'd just seen an NCAA tournament upset. Penn State (17-15) will play at home against Kent in the NIT quarterfinals on Wednesday.