Entering a new conference can be tough for any team as there is rarely any familiar territory or foes. The Sam Houston University Bearkats saw this firsthand, with this year being their first season in a new conference in over 30 years.
While this would be tough to transition, to begin with, the Western Athletic Conference has always been known as a competitive basketball conference.
The Bearkats men’s basketball team currently sits in second place of the league roughly halfway through the season behind Seattle University at 7-1, with their only conference loss coming from the Tarleton University Texans.
This success is big in part to the recent home success. The Bearkats had to take on the top three teams picked in the preseason polls in New Mexico State University, Grand Canyon University and long-time rival Stephen F. Austin University in back-to-back-to-back games in Huntsville, Texas. They came away undefeated as they hit the road to California.
In the team’s first game of the homestand, the Bearkats took on the Lumberjacks for the first time this season. The Bearkats had lost their last four games against the Lumberjacks and were 3-12 against them since 2011.
“They have been hard to beat,” head coach Jason Hooten said. “Me personally they have had my number, and as my dad would say it’s just a tough out. Even when we were up 14, I knew it wasn’t over, and we just kept fighting and fighting and you got to beat them at the end because they are not going to beat themselves.”
The Bearkats came away with a low-scoring victory in their first game of the homestand against SFA with a score of 49-41. The defense was on top of its game as it only allowed 12 points in the first half.
Graduate guard Savion Flagg led the way in scoring with 19 points to go along with six rebounds, four steals and two blocks. He also played the entire 40 minutes of the game.
One of his blocks came with 29 seconds left in the game to keep the Bearkats lead at two possessions.
The Lumberjacks fought back after being down 13 at the half as they would not go away. SFA took the lead with 4:46 left with a 35-34 score line. The Bearkats would take the lead back on the next possession thanks to senior guard Demarkus Lampley hitting his first three-pointer of the game. The Bearkats would never look back and win game one of the homestand.
The second game of the homestand came against the New Mexico State Aggies who, at the time of tip-off, were on a 10-game win streak and were in sole possession of first place in the conference.
The Aggies would leave Huntsville with their first conference loss in a 71-46 defeat.
From the moment the game started, the Bearkats were hitting on all ends of the court. The Bearkats started the game with a 10-0 run to get the momentum started early.
“We shot lights out,” Hooten said. “We got off to a great start. We know how talented they [New Mexico State] are. They are one of the most talented teams in this league.”
The biggest question coming into the game would be how the Bearkats would contain junior guard Teddy Allen who was coming off a 41-point game.
However, this was not a concern for the Bearkats and junior guard Javion May. Allen was held to just two points on the night, with May guarding him for most of the game.
The Bearkats first-half defense also continued its role as it only allowed 18 points in the first period of play. Sam Houston led the game 38-18 going into the second half.
The second half would be much of the same as the Bearkats continued to play complete basketball and cruised their way to the 25-point victory. The Bearkats led by as much as 38 points after a dunk by Flagg. Both the team and the crowd got fired up after the play thanks to Flagg waving his arms hyping up the entire arena.
Flagg once again led the team in scoring with 22 on the game. The Bearkats also had two other players in double digits, with Lampley having 10 and junior guard Donte Powers having 12 points off the bench.
“It’s really not about scoring,” Powers said. “I’ll do anything I can do to help the team. Whether that is defending, rebounding or getting steals. It just so happened that I scored 12 points tonight, so it’s really just about making an impact for the team.”
With the first two games ending in Sam Houston’s favor, the third one loomed into Saturday. The Antelopes were the WAC’s representative in the NCAA March Madness tournament a year ago, so the task ahead was not an easy one.
This was also the program’s first time ever facing GCU.
The game would begin in the Bearkats favor as they would jump to an 11-6 lead within the first seven minutes. The Lopes would jump onto the Bearkats defense that had been so sturdy the two previous games and gained a 20-14-point lead.
Grand Canyon would go up by as much as nine before the end of the first half, but the Bearkats would close the gap and head into the second period of play down 32-26 after only allowing 30 total points in the first half of the previous two games combined.
The Bearkats would quickly respond and jump to a 35-34 lead within the first four minutes of the second half thanks to a three-pointer from junior forward Tristan Ikpe followed by a layup from May.
The Lopes would regain the lead and hold onto it until the final 10 minutes. However, two made free throws from May and a Flagg layup would give the Bearkats back their lead. Powers would follow with a three-pointer of his own to give the Bearkats a 49-43 lead with 9:20 remaining.
GCU fought back and eventually tied the game at 54 with under two minutes left to go. Junior guard Jaden Ray, who led the Bearkats in scoring in this game with 15, would hit a three-pointer with 1:29 left to go to give Sam Houston a 57-54 lead. This would also be the fifth time in the last six games that Ray would finish a game in double-digits.
“We went up three and all we needed to do was not give up another three,” Ray said. “It felt real good hitting that one with that much time left.”
The crowd, which had been standing since the six-minutes-remaining mark, erupted into a frenzy.
“I can’t say enough about our crowd,” Hooten said. “Our student section has just been growing and getting better and better. It’s just so exciting and fun to see, it has been one of my goals and aspirations as head coach for 11 and a half years and we are going to keep building that thing.”
The Lopes would be given two free throws with 46-seconds left in the game to cut the Bearkats lead down to one. With 20-seconds remaining, Ikpe would be awarded two free throws of his own, making only one of them as the Bearkats would now have a 58-56 lead.
On the final possession of the game, GCU would attempt a mid-range shot to tie the game and overshoot the basket to give the Bearkats their fifth straight win.
“We were just trying to get better, and we did,” Hooten said. “We lost some of those [non-conference] games. Some of those games we played well in stretches and some of those games we didn’t play well. But I think we learned a lot from that and kept on getting better and better.”
The Bearkats will travel to California to take on California Baptist University Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. followed by a road trip to Seattle to take on Seattle University Saturday at 3:00 p.m.