OKLAHOMA CITY - It hardly seemed fair.
In the stands, the seats were 90 percent full of screaming, orange-clad Oklahoma State fans.
On the Cowboys bench sat Eddie Sutton and his 26 NCAA tournaments' worth of coaching experience.
On the court were Oklahoma State's four senior starters, who last year made it to the Final Four.
Under the circumstances, it seemed No. 15 seed Southeastern Louisiana had little chance in yesterday's first-round Chicago Regional game at the Ford Center. But the Lions made a game of it, trailing by three with 7:05 remaining and by four with 4:07 left.
Second-seeded Oklahoma State finally used a flurry of late free throws to pull away and win, 63-50, but afterward the winning coach said the result might have been different on a neutral court.
"The crowd helped," said Sutton, who added it was the highest percentage of fans of one team he had seen at an NCAA site in his career. "That was unbelievable. I don't know what would've happened if they hadn't sent us here." Oklahoma State (25-6) is only 66 miles from here, so its fans should predominate in the second round tomorrow against seventh-seeded Southern Illinois. But even that might not help if the Cowboys do not get better outings from their top two players, forward Joey Graham and guard John Lucas.
Each averaged 18.1 points entering yesterday's game. Lucas scored 12. Graham struggled mightily, scoring seven points in only 18 foul-plagued minutes and shooting 1-for-4 from the field.
"I have never seen him play as poorly as he did today," Sutton said. "He's had some games like that. Sometimes he can disappear on you."
Said Graham: "It just wasn't my night. I was impatient a lot." Fortunately for Oklahoma State, several other players compensated, notably forward Ivan McFarlin, who considered a pattern of strong NCAA Tournament play by shooting 8-for-10, scoring 18 points and totaling nine rebounds.
Several of those baskets came on layups off nifty passes, including a beauty from freshman JamesOn Curry at a key late moment.
Curry also hit one of the game's biggest shots, a three-pointer that extended a 51-47 lead to 54-47 with 3:49 left.
Southeastern Louisiana center Nate Lofton dismissed McFarlin's gaudy statistics, saying, "My 3-year-old daughter can shoot layups all night.
The Lions (24-9) never fully recovered from an 11-0 Oklahoma State run in the first half that made the score 21-9, during which Lofton was called for his third personal foul. He missed the last 12:40 of the half and ended up with only six points and seven turnovers.
Southern Illinois 65, Saint Mary's 56: After enduring consecutive heartbreaking losses in the first round of the NCAA tournament, seniors Stetson Hairston and Darren Brooks weren't going to let it happen again to Southern Illinois.
Hairston broke a late tie with three free throws, then followed with a three-pointer and Brooks drove for the next two baskets, giving the Salukis the push they needed to get past Saint Mary's in the Chicago Regional.
Seventh-seeded Southern Illinois (27-7) advanced for the first time since 2002, when Hairston and Brooks were freshmen on a club that made the regional semifinals. The Salukis were knocked out by one point in the opening round the past two years, missing shots at the buzzer both times.
Southern Illinois can point to its top-tier seed as proof that some important folks think highly of them. Wanting to prove they deserved it, the Salukis of the Missouri Valley Conference came out with an incredible show of energy and intensity: an early 14-0 run fueled by nine turnovers, including a run of eight straight trips downcourt for the 10th-seeded Gaels (25-9).
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Top performer: Ivan McFarlin compensated for Oklahoma State's poor performance from its stars with 18 points, nine rebounds and 8-for-10 shooting.
Big surprise: Joey Graham and John Lucas, Oklahoma State's leading scorers at 18.1 points a game, were held to seven and 12 points, respectively, in the Cowboys' 63-50 win over 13th-seeded Southeastern Louisiana.
He said it: "I'm a senior, so I have to do those things." - Stetson Hairston, who led seventh-seeded Southern Illinois with 13 points and broke a late tie with three free throws, then followed with a three-pointer to beat pesky St. Mary's, a 10th seed