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Mullins, Southern Illinois spoil Saint Mary's ranking

Dec 12, 2007 - 6:17 AM CARBONDALE, Illinois (Ticker) -- Bryan Mullins and Southern Illinois nearly saw their early-season struggles get really bad.

Mullins scored 11 of his 24 points in a key stretch as the Salukis avoided the loss of a big lead and posted a 71-56 victory over No. 24 Saint Mary's on Tuesday.

Matt Shaw had 13 points and Joshua Bone added 10 for Southern Illinois (4-3), which snapped a three-game losing streak that had dropped it out of the national rankings.

Failing to score in double figures during the team's slump, Mullins showed a surprising initiative to take the clutch shot, finishing 7-of-10 from the field with 3-pointers.

"He was special," Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery said. "He looked like he wanted to win."

Meanwhile, Saint Mary's (7-1) was playing in its first game as a ranked team in 18 years, and struggled until late.

The Gaels, who last were in the top 25 during the 1988-89 season before being voted into the USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll on Monday, fell behind by 19 points after Shaw made one of three free throws for a 51-32 lead with 14:49 to play.

The Salukis, who are considered one of the top mid-major teams in the nation and were ranked as high as 18th before their recent skid, figured to have the game in hand due to their rugged defense.

However, Saint Mary's came alive, ripping off a 20-4 run behind seven points from Patrick Mills and five by Tron Smith to come within 55-52 with 5:56 remaining.

Although that was the closest the Gaels got, they were down just 58-54 with just under 4 1/2 minutes left when Mullins stepped up.

The junior guard scored nine straight points and 11 overall during a 13-0 run that practically sealed the contest.

Mullins hit an off-balanced layup to give his club a six-point lead with 4:06 remaining and knocked down a 3-pointer 48 seconds later before adding a jumper and two free throws for a 67-54 lead with 70 seconds to play.

He added two more free throws in the closing minute on the way to finishing 7-of-7 at the line.

"My role this year is obviously different than it has been in the past, and I'm still adjusting to it," Mullins said. "We had great playmakers the last two years with Tony Young and Jamaal Tatum. I was able to give them the ball at the end of the shot clock, and they would make plays for us. Now, I have to start making more plays for my teammates."

Smith completed the scoring for on a jumper seven seconds later, as Saint Mary's absorbed a loss in its first road game outside of California.

Randal Falker chipped in eight points and 12 rebounds for the Salukis, who captured their first win over a ranked opponent since beating No. 17 Creighton on March 1, 2003.

Already facing such teams as Southern California and Indiana, Southern Illinois continued to add to its strong schedule, as Saint Mary's had the top RPI ranking in the nation.

"I think who we played is really going to pay off for us," Lowery said. "The different types of players we've seen, the special athletes and special talents, I think it's going to be a credit to us down the road."

Mills had 11 points for the Gaels, who made just 15-of-23 free throws (65 percent).

Smith and Diamon Simpson had 10 points each for Saint Mary's, which was outrebounded by a 39-24 margin.

"They blasted us on the boards," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said.