Four players who came to Sam Houston as junior college transfers two years ago are poised on the verge of making Bearkat men’s basketball history.
Seniors James Thomas, Terrance Motley, Will Bond and Nathaniel Mason have led the 2014 team to the program’s seventh 20-victory season and fourth Southland post-season finals appearance in 27 years of NCAA Division I basketball.
Now the Bearkats have earned a berth in the College Insider.com Tournament (CIT). As the team with one of the best records and highest RPI rankings in the event, the SHSU men racked up their first NCAA post-season win ever in the first round
The Kats defeated Alabama State 71-49 to advance to a second round showdown with San Diego Saturday.
Thirty-two teams will compete in the event with the championship finals on April 3.
“Playing in an NCAA post-season tournament is great not only for our university but for these kids, especially our seniors,” SHSU head coach Jason Hooten said. “All four were really hurting badly after the loss to SFA in the Southland tournament finals. I’m excited for them to get an opportunity to play more games. The kids have worked so hard this year and have put in so much. We’ll see what happens.”
Hooten gives a lot of credit to the leadership provided by his four seniors to the success of the 2014 team.
Thomas, a Duncanville High School product who played on an NJCAA national tournament team at Navarro Junior College in 2012, is averaging 8.3 points and 3.5 rebounds as a starter for the Bearkats this year.
He has been a starter since he arrived, but it’s his willingness to do the little things like rebounding and committing to defense that has made him stand out. He was even given the nickname “junkyard dog” for his tenacious approach to the game.
Motley was an all-Nebraska juco selection at Western Nebraska Junior College. This year, he is the Bearkat's leading rebounder and has scored in double figures in 12 games.
Bond led Trinity Valley Community College to an NJCAA regional finals appearance in 2012. He is one of the Bearkats' top scoring threats from beyond the arc with 33 three-point baskets this season.
Mason was an NJCAA third-team All-America selection at Des Moines Area Community College. He has shown he can score both inside and from the perimeter as a Bearkat.
“All four of these guys have given us exactly what we needed from them and what we wanted when we recruited them,” Hooten said. “You’re looking at guys who won 40 games in two years. That’s 20 games per year and that’s pretty good. They’ve got a chance to add to that this weekend in the tournament. They’ve been special.”
The four seniors' contributions have come not only at the offensive end of the floor but also on defense.
"One of the keys for our success this year has been the way these kids have bought into what we are trying to do defensively," Hooten said. "We've got a high-powered attack this year, but when the shots weren't falling, it's been our defense and rebounding that's kept us in the games."
Hooten said the entire team is excited for another opportunity to get back on the basketball court after losing to Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference tournament championship game.
“We have a good relationship with the people at College Insider and we just felt very comfortable and appreciative that they were the first to invite us,” Hooten said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without President Dana Gibson and athletic director Bobby Williams both agreeing to it. We’re fortunate to have an opportunity to play. We’re really excited. The guys are fired up and want to play some more basketball.”
This will be the third time in school history the Bearkats participate in a postseason tournament. Sam Houston qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2003 and 2010 but lost in the first round at the regionals both years.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Thomas said. “This is big. Succeeding in NCAA post-season play is how I want to go out by the time I leave. It would be really special to do well on this stage.”
Motley, the Bearkats’ leading scorer in the finals loss to Stephen F. Austin, also is excited about the chance to take the court again.
“This is a great opportunity to go out and play more,” Motley said. “It’s always fun to play some different people, too — some people we haven’t played before.”
The seniors know that depth has been a strength for the Bearkats all year. Sam Houston has wins over three teams that earned NCAA playoff berths in 2012.
“That’s the beauty of our team. We’re 11-deep,” Bond said. “There’s a lot of teams who aren’t playing right now. We didn't think we would ever get to play on that court again so we're just excited to get another opportunity."
The 2014 team came within one game of their top goal, reaching the NCAA tournament, but were denied by an outstanding Stephen F. Austin squad that earned a No. 12 seed in the "Big Dance" with their 31-2 record.
Mason believes that dedication along with a maturation process allowed the Kats to be in the position to still earn a post-season playoff berth.
"We're just looking forward to being able to keep competing with the team," Mason said. "We've really grown in the last few weeks. In the last month we've grown and bonded. Our chemistry is getting better and better on both sides of the ball. I'm just glad our college careers are not overwith."