Courtesy: Southland Conference
KATY - A quick start from a fresh New Orleans squad created a hold too big for Sam Houston State to climb out of as the top-seeded Privateers put an end to the Bearkats Southland Conference Tournament run in the tournament semifinals on Friday night at the Leonard E. Merrell Center.
Makur Puou scored six early points to lead a well-balanced New Orleans attack as will await the winner of the late game between Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in Saturday night’s title game.
“It’s a great culmination for our university,” said Privateers coach Mark Slessinger, whose team also recorded their first win over Sam Houston State (21-13) since joining the Southland Conference in 2013. "This is a team effort.”
Guard Christavious Gill, who scored 15 points and recorded three of New Orleans’ 10 steals, said the opening burst was indeed the key toward getting the Privateers on their way.
“It was important,” he said. “Sam Houston had played two games in two nights, so we wanted to wear them down. It helped us at the end. We got off to the big lead, they came back at the end, but we got the W.”
Leading by as many as 18 points in the second half, the Privateers held off an inspired run from the Bearkats, who rode the shooting of Dakarai Henderson to push within 66-60 when Henderson hit his fifth three-pointer of the night with 2:19 remaining. It would prove to be as close as New Orleans would allow matters to escalate, as they hit nine of 10 free throws over the final moments of play.
Free throws were a vital foundation for the Privateers, who connected on 24 of their 30 attempts from the charity stripe. Forward Erik Thomas, this year's Southland Conference Player of the Year, was perfect from the line, hitting on all 10 of his shots at the line on his way to an 18-point night.
New Orleans also contained the Bearkats’ two all-conference third team members. Sam Houston State forward Aruimas Majauskas was held to just six points, while John Dewey III was limited to eight points.
The Privateers gave up the game’s first two points but then outscored the Bearkats 19-5 to take a 12-point lead with 12:48 left in the opening half. New Orleans extended the lead to as much as 30-16 at the 7:44 mark, riding the hand of an offense that was shooting at a blistering 71 percent clip.
Sam Houston tried to stay within shouting distance, yet each time the Bearkats moved to close the gap to single digits, the Privateers were able to respond.
Taking a 39-25 lead into intermission, New Orleans watched Sam Houston State twice close within 12 points before going on a 7-0 run that gave the Privateers a 52-33 margin when Gill buried a trey with 14:20 remaining. The lead reached 54-36 at the 11:45 mark before the Bearkats, who shot just 38.3 percent from the field, slowly began to work their back into the contest.
Down 64-47 with 5:34 on the clock, Sam Houston State put together their best offensive run of the night, firing off a 13-2 run that was capped by Henderson’s triple. Henderson, who scored 16 points, had six points and an offensive rebound that led to a Cameron Delaney three-pointer during the spurt.
“I thought we came out a little flat, but I think the biggest thing to do is to give New Orleans credit,” said Bearkats coach Jason Hooten. “They really came out hungry tonight. They took it to us and we really didn’t recover from it.”
Sam Houston, which made its fifth straight trip to the conference semifinals and sixth in the last seven years, finished with a pair of players in double figures as Christopher Galbreath Jr. added 11 points and a pair of blocks.
The Kats, who had turned the ball over just 12 combined times in their first two tournament games, were forced into 15 by the UNO defense in the game, including 11 in the opening half. The Privateers took full advantage of those miscues, turning them into 28 points and finished with a decisive 36-22 advantage in the paint.
Still, Sam Houston's 21 wins on the season is the 17th 20-win season in program history and the third in the last four years under Hooten.