The 2003 basketball season turned out to be one for the ages.
The Sam Houston State Bearkats won their first ever Southland Conference Tournament championship and earned a ticket to the granddaddy of all, the NCAA Tournament.
Although the dance did not turn out the way the Bearkats would have wanted, it helped establish the program on the national stage.
In front of a packed house at Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum, the SHSU Bearkats made history when they beat the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks 69-66 in overtime. Donald Cole hit a three-pointer with 13 seconds left in overtime and then sank one of two free throws with two seconds left to give them a three-point victory.
“We wanted to spread it out, and I didn’t think they were going to leave me open and they did,” said Cole, who was named tournament MVP. “(Robert Shannon) hit me in the corner and I looked up and the point guard, who is a lot shorter than me, was in front, so I just decided to take the shot and it went in.”
The game was back and forth in the final minutes of regulation and overtime with SFA’s Antonio Burks draining a three-pointer just 20 seconds earlier to give the Jacks a one point lead.
SFA coach Danny Kaspar said he wasn’t looking for an outside shot. That is why the Jacks went to the zone defense that allowed Cole to bury the three and SFA’s hopes of an upset.
“We expected them to drive to the basket and try and draw the foul,” Kaspar said. “So we went to the 1-3-1 zone to defend it. You know Cole taking a three is not a bad shot to give.”
The Kats faced a talented University of Florida team that felt they had something to prove after dropping three straight games heading into the tournament. Unfortunately for SHSU, they got the Florida team that won 14 in a row and was ranked No. 1 in the country at one point. That spelled trouble for the Kats as they fell 85-55 at the St. Petersburg Time Forum in Tampa, Fla.
“Having lost the last three in a row, Florida came in focused,” head coach Bob Marlin said. “They played like they wanted to make a statement and they did that.”
The Bearkats jumped to an early lead to start the game when Eddy Barlow hit a three to get the game rolling. It didn’t take long for the Gators to take control of the game as they went up 23-9 at the 11:21 mark after Brett Nelson hit a three of his own.
Just when it seemed the game would get out of hand early, the Kats responded with an 8-0 run to cut the lead to six at 27-21, thanks to a Donald Cole three-pointer. The game remained close until the Gators capitalized on some missed SHSU layups to go up 14 at the half.
“We started off sluggish but we regained our composure midway through the first half,” Cole said. “We didn’t come out they way we should have in the second half and it seemed that everything they put up found its way in.”
The second half continued the way the first half ended and Florida never let up until the final seconds ran of the clock.
After the smoke had cleared, the Gators handed SHSU their worst loss of the season. Sophomore David Lee seemed impossible to stop in the paint and the Gators shot a remarkable 13-28 from behind the arc, with 9-14 coming in the second half.
“I felt coming into the game that Sam Houston is a team with great rebounding and quickness,” Florida head coach Billy Donavan said. “We were uptight to start the game, which is normal for this time of year. In the second half we came out with great intensity.”
Lee was the games leading scorer with 23 points and SEC “Freshman of the Year” Anthony Roberson had 16. Cole led the Kats with 15 points and Eddy Fobbs had 10 points and 11 rebounds to go with three blocked shots.
The Kats are losing five senior starters including the Southland Conference “Player of the Year” Cole and second team All-SLC point guard Robert Shannon. Fortunately for SHSU, the returning players received valuable playing experience in the NCAA tournament and now know what it will take to return.
“We have a lot of good underclassmen and we know what we need to do to get back,” Fobbs said. “We are going to be close as a team and we going to need to work hard to get back here.”