Sam Houston State’s men’s basketball began conference play on a strong note currently seated second in the Southland Conference, trailing one game behind Stephen F. Austin State.
The Bearkats climbed conference standings with two victories during the winter break against McNeese State and Nicholls State.
The Bearkats desperately held on to a one-point lead in the final seconds of the game by way of a jump ball with 2.6 seconds remaining. Sophomore guard Paul Baxter missed a pair of free throws, one of which stuck to the rim.
The possession arrow turned in favor of SHSU and with 2 seconds remaining, Cowboys freshman guard Jamaya Burr fouled Baxter to send him back to the line to drain the two late free throws to hold off a McNeese State comeback.
Head coach Jason Hooten credited an early double-digit advantage to the win.
“We needed that hot start,” Hooten said. “Or we would’ve been in trouble later.”
Initially the Bearkats began the game in total control as they owned a 19-9 advantage within the first 10 minutes of play. SHSU continued to build upon that momentum behind the performance of junior guard Kaheem Ransom.
He tallied 17 points and nine boards to lead the Bearkats to a 21-point lead in the first half.
Redshirt freshman guard Dakarai Henderson came off the bench and contributed 11 points, draining three of SHSU’s six three-point shots in the first half.
However, the Cowboys gained life during the second half.
McNeese State clawed their way out of a 17-point deficit finding rhythm on the perimeter to narrow the Bearkats’ lead.
“We played harder than them,” Baxter said. “We just lost intensity towards the end of the game.”
With less than a second on the clock, sophomore guard Shaun Johnson connected on a 3-pointer to put the Cowboys at the heels of SHSU 81-82.
A final turnover and foul sealed the Cowboys’ fate, giving the Bearkats the conference victory.
“We need to do a better job of finishing,” Hooten said.
SHSU used the McNeese game to propel them into the Nicholls State contest. Despite a sluggish start to the game, the Bearkats managed to annihilate the Colonels 88-61.
Nicholls State took advantage of SHSU’s slow start with a healthy 13-2 lead. After that, the Bearkat offense revved up for a 15-4 run to tie the game at 17.
Junior guard Jabari Peters said the Bearkat squad needed to change how they were playing for the second half.
“We didn’t come with the right energy,” he said. “We picked it up and played our basketball.”
Junior guard Marquel McKinney gave SHSU its first lead of the game, 26-25, after draining two free throws with six minutes left in the first period.
The Bearkats took a 42-31 lead into halftime and didn’t let their momentum diminish.
SHSU scored the first 10 points of the second half and kept their foot on the gas pedal, reaching a 30-point lead in the second half.
Hooten used the squandered 24-point lead against McNeese State as ammunition.
“I thought we responded,” he said. “We didn’t get sloppy.”
The Bearkats ran the floor as they shot 57 percent from the field for the game. The Colonels were muffled down to 45 percent from the field after their aggressive start.
Peters led the attack for the Bearkats, posting 18 points and doling out seven assists.
Baxter chipped in 12 points and senior forward Terrance Motley drained 10 points.
The win was a team effort as 11 Bearkats found themselves in the box score.
SHSU will take the road the next four games. Their first stop will be in Hammond, La., to matchup with the Southeastern Louisiana Lions Thursday at 6:30 p.m.