Courtesy: Southland Conference
KATY - Sam Houston State rode a gamut of emotions on Wednesday, making just enough plays to survive another day.
The fifth-seeded Bearkats nearly squandered a 19-point lead but were able to hold off eighth-seed Central Arkansas 77-69 in the Southland Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament opening round game Wednesday night at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas. Sam Houston State (20-12) advances to play fourth seed Houston Baptist at 5 p.m. CST on Thursday.
“Definitely a hard-fought game,” said Bearkats coach Jason Hooten. “I never felt real comfortable when we were up (19) in the first half. Just from experience, you know it’s going to come down to the end.”
Central Arkansas (8-24) had several opportunities to push Sam Houston State’s season to a much different conclusion. A Thatch Unruh 3-pointer pushed the Bears to within 60-58 with 6:58 remaining, putting them on the verge of erasing what was a 43-24 deficit at the 3:33 mark of the first half. On four different possessions, Central Arkansas had an opportunity to either tie or take the lead, yet were unable to hurdle the barrier.
Mathieu Kamba’s layup with 3:07 in the second half put the Bears within two at 66-64, marking the last time the Bearkats would be within a possession of taking or taking the lead. After a Christopher Galbreath free throw extended the lead to three, he followed up with a steal that led to sophomore guard John Dewey III’s jumper that finally gave Sam Houston State much needed breathing room at 69-64 with 1:56 remaining.
“I want the ball in my hands in the last five minutes,” said Dewey, who scored six of his 15 points in the final two minutes of play.
Finding the basket was crucial for Sam Houston State, which had shot 46 percent from the field in the first half while also knocking down eight 3-pointers - a season high for a half this year. That included four from Dakarai Henderson, who scored all 16 of his points in the opening stanza.
Hooten was pleased to get the production from his senior, who was up past midnight on Tuesday working on his offensive game in an attempt to shake out of a slump.
“I didn’t know who that guy was,” Hooten joked about Henderson. “Nobody was more deserving to have that kind of start. I just hope that’s a huge spark for him.”
Despite shooting under 30 percent in the second half, the Bearkats relied on the foundation of their success -- defense -- to hold off Central Arkansas’ upside bid.
“Our ability to play defense when our shots weren’t going down was the key,” said Sam Houston senior guard Paul Baxter, who scored 11 points and added a team-high four assists.
Bears’ coach Russ Pennell took the loss as a stepping stone for his program, which was making just their second appearance in the conference tournament. As in the case of their previous trip to Katy in 2013, Central Arkansas’ run ended at the hands of Sam Houston State.
“I’m very happy from where we started from to where we’re at now,” he said. “I’m real excited about our future. I’m happy where we’re heading. I don’t think our record (8-24) is indicative of where we are as a team.”
Kamba led the Bears with 21 points, while all-conference first teamer Jordan Howard added 18 and Derreck Brooks contributed 14 for Central Arkansas in his final game with the program.