Winless in the last 10 regular season meetings, only one win since 2010 and two Southland Conference championship defeats.
The Stephen F. Austin State Lumberjacks have been the kryptonite to the Sam Houston State men’s basketball team for quite some time; but with the two squaring off on Feb. 2, the Kats look to break the curse.
“They’ve had our number the last four or five years and I think things will change eventually,” head coach Jason Hooten said. “We hope that it’s this year and maybe we start that trend of getting back on top of them.”
After starting 0-2 in Southland Conference play, the Bearkats have found their footing, winning its last seven games. Although the Lumberjacks are 11-10 (6-3 SLC), they cannot be underestimated, especially with nine games remaining on the schedule.
“I know they were picked second or third behind us [to win the Southland Conference] but in my opinion they’re the team to beat,” Hooten said. “They’re the team to beat until someone unseats them because they’re the three-time defending conference champions.”
The Lumberjacks are dealing with a change of an era this season. Following last year’s surprise run in the NCAA Tournament, three-year Lumberjack head coach Brad Underwood bolted to Oklahoma State University, leaving the head coaching vacancy available for Kyle Keller to step in.
“It is going to be a tough game for many reasons,” Hooten added. “They have good players and he is a good coach. I’m sure it has just taken him awhile to get his system implemented and to get those guys to fall into what he wants to do.”
Along with a new headman, SFA also lost a handful of key players due to graduation; such as 2015 SLC All-Defensive team member Trey Pickney and two-time SLC Player of the Year Thomas Walkup. The passing of the torch from Underwood to Keller, and the transitioning of talent, could be a major reason why the program is not atop the conference standings this season.
“I think what you’re seeing from them right now is a team that lost some really good players, but more importantly maybe great leaders,” Hooten said. “Now, you’re seeing a new coach and I think their team is starting to come together and they’re playing really well right now, probably as good as they’ve played all year long.”
For the second consecutive game, the Bearkats will play a team that holds one of the top defenses in the conference. The Lumberjacks rank first in scoring defense, holding opponents to an average of 68.1 points per game. SFA is also a solid rebounding team, ranking first in both rebounding defense and rebounding margin. The Kats will have to crash the boards if they want to continue their win streak.
“I think we’ll definitely have to come out and get off to a good start,” Hooten said. “We’re going to have to defend and rebound like we always do and I think we have to continue to take care of the ball. I do think our motion is getting better and we’re starting to get the ball inside more.”
The last time the Bearkats hit the court on Jan. 28 the team struggled to contain Southeastern Louisiana guard junior Davon Hayes, allowing him to score a game-high 23 points. Even though the Jacks do not have one particular player that stands out on the stats sheet, the team consists of experienced players who are used to SFA’s winning culture.
“I know they have some good returners,” Hooten said. “Dallas Cameron, their point guard, has won a lot of games over there and the Holyfield kid has been a really good player for them and I know they added a lot of new talented people. Again, I think they have talent and weapons. We will have to play one of our better games in order to come out on top.”
SFA forward junior T.J. Holyfield has unique ties to the Bearkat basketball family. His older brother, Michael Holyfield, played under Hooten for three years and ranks No. 4 in SHSU history for career blocks. T.J. offers the Lumberjacks the best of both worlds on each end of the court. He is averaging 11.2 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game, which is seventh best in the SLC.
“I’ve watched him throughout the season and I’ve seen him improve drastically,” senior guard Dakarai Henderson said. “He’s become probably one of their better players. I know he’s tough down low, a good shot blocker and he plays hard all the time. We’re just going to have to come ready because I know he’s never going to let down regardless of the score.”
No player on SHSU’s roster has ever experienced a win over SFA. That means a Bearkat victory Thursday night would provide a special feeling for the seniors on the team.
“A win [over SFA] would be a big lift off my shoulders for sure,” Henderson said. “It’s like never being able to beat an older sibling or something like that. Going into this game I know I haven’t won or seen a win against SFA since I’ve been here and that’s going to mean a whole lot to me. “
Senior center Aurimas Majauskas would not mind a win Thursday, but would also like to beat the Lumberjacks on an even bigger stage.
“When a team wins against you all three years you’ve played, you really look forward to beating them,” Majauskas said. “It would be really nice to beat them in the regular season; and of course I would love to play them in the conference tournament finals against them and then beat them there. They beat us twice in the conference tournament and they beat us every time in the regular season so we’re just ready to protect our court.”
The next chapter of the Bearkats versus Lumberjacks rivalry on the hardwood unfolds Feb. 2 at Johnson Coliseum. The game will be televised on American Sports Network.
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m.