KATY -- For the seventh time in the past 12 seasons, Sam Houston State will be in the semifinals of the State Farm Southland Conference Men's Basketball Tournament thanks to a 61-45 victory over Stephen F. Austin Wednesday afternoon.
Southland "Player of the Year" Gilberto Clavell scored 20 points and the Bearkats played outstanding defense in a first round game at the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy.
Sam Houston (18-12) never trailed in the game as the Bearkats rolled up their fourth victory in a row. Stephen F. Austin, the Southland Conference's 2011 preseason favorite and the squad SHSU defeated in last year's tournament finals, ended the year 18-11.
"It's hard to get ready to play a team you just played seven days ago," SHSU head coach Jason Hooten said following his first tournament game as a head coach. "It's kind of crazy, but it was a carbon copy of the same game. I haven't slept much over the last three nights, you wonder playing someone that close whether or not you can execute your game plan the same way in a quick turnaround. But the credit goes to the kids, because they did exactly that. It was the same kind of game and we executed exactly what we needed to do to win."
The Bearkats will play UTSA in the semifinals Thursday night at 6:30 p.m.
Josten Crow also scored in double figures for Sam Houston with 11 points. Nafis Richardson added nine points and Drae Murry eight. Antuan Bootle led the Kats with 10 rebounds.
"In college basketball, a guy like Antuan Bootle sometimes doesn't get much credit, but you can't overlook or underestimate the size of his contribution and his presence inside," Hooten said. "He's a great rebounder and I told him at the end of the year he's got the ability to lead the league in rebounds. He's had some really good games down the stretch. He's been very motivated and played really hard. We probably wouldn't be where we are today without his efforts."
Just as they did a week ago in Nacogdoches, the Bearkat defense smothered SFA in the early going, holding the Jacks scoreless for the first five-and-a-half minutes of play.
A Clavell jumper put Sam Houston up 9-0 four minutes into the contest. Jereal Scott tallied Stephen F. Austin's first points with a jumper at the 14:48 mark.
"Today, we were all focused, we practiced hard all week," Clavell said. "We concentrated on rebounding and out playing people. We wanted to increase our defense knowing that our offense would come from that effort. It was a good game for us."
Sam Houston's largest lead in the first half was 14 points, 32-18, on a Crow three-pointer with 2:56 remaining. At intermission, SHSU went into the locker room with a 36-24 lead. The Bearkats shot 58.3 percent in the first half (14-of-24).
SFA never got closer than 10 points in the second half as Sam Houston had an answer for every Lumberjack run. Bootle put SHSU up 44-30 with a jumper at the 15:17 mark and a Murray three-pointer gave Sam Houston a 49-36 lead with 6:11 to play.
"We played together. It was a good team effort," Crow said. "Defensively, we communicated. We had all our coverages down and stuck with what the coaches said and followed the game plan."
The Bearkats' largest lead in the game came on a basket by Richardson with 1:16 to play that put SHSU up 67-50.
Sam Houston ended the contest shooting 57 percent from the floor (24-of-42) while holding SFA to 40 percent shooting (18-of-45).
The Bearkats hold a 3-4 record in their Southland semifinal appearances. Last year Sam Houston edged Southeastern Louisiana 88-85 to advance to the finals against SFA. A 64-48 victory over the Lumberjacks sent the Kats to New Orleans for their second NCAA Division I "March Madness" appearance.
Sam Houston won both its games with UTSA this year, defeating the Roadrunners 67-59 in San Antonio and 88-67 in Huntsville in January.
Tickets for Thursday night's Southland semifinal game are available online now at www.gobearkats.com/tickets or by calling the Sam Houston athletic ticket office at (936) 294-1729.