The fifth seeded Sam Houston State Bearkats faced their first test of the Southland Conference Tournament Wednesday night against the eighth seeded University of Central Arkansas Bears. The Kats led by as many as 19 points before the Bears made a comeback in the second half. However, the Kats were the team on top when the final buzzer sounded, winning by a final score of 77-69 at the Merrill Center in Katy.
The Bearkats had been plagued by poor play over the last month of the season, but that was not the issue tonight.
SHSU got going quickly with shots behind the arc. Sophomore guard John Dewey III and senior guard Dakarai Henderson opened the game hitting multiple shots from the three-point line. The Kats used their hot shooting hand to go up 9-2 just 2:30 into the game.
The Bearkats did not just start hot, but they stayed hot; the Bearkats shot 63 percent from the field in the first eight minutes and jumped out to an early 19-11 lead. Shots kept on falling for the Bearkats, as the team shot 57 percent from three-point range in the first half. The Bears were content to sit in a 3-2 zone for a majority of the first half, and the Bearkats were decided to take advantage and keep hitting wide-open three-point jumpers. However, the Bears did come out of their zone late in the half, but by the time they did, the damage was already done.
The Bearkats went into halftime leading by 14 points, 49-35. Henderson led all scorers in the first half with 16 points in the first half. The eight three-pointers made by SHSU was the most the team has made in a 20-minute frame all season.
“There is nobody that works harder than Dakarai,” head coach Jason Hooten said. “He’s working and trying. He was up at the gym the night before we left until 12 o’clock.”
The second half was a different story for the Bearkats.
UCA quickly cut the 14-point halftime deficit down to six at the beginning of the half. Coming out of the break, the Bears switched their defense to a 2-3 zone, which seemed to slow down the Bearkats offensively. The UCA trio of junior guard Jordan Howard, senior guard Derreck Brooks and junior guard Mathieu Kamba slowly but surely were able to get the Bears back into the game in the second half. The combination of Howard’s quickness and Brooks’ and Kamba’s size caused the Bearkats fits in the last 20 minutes. The Bearkats also lost their touch from behind the arc in the second half. After making eight of 14 threes in the first half, the Bearkats could not seem to buy a bucket from behind the arc in the second half, making just one of their first nine attempts.
The Bears on the other hand did not have three pointers in volume, but when they needed them they got them. Sophomore guard Thatch Unruh hit a three with six minutes left in the game to cut the game to two. The shot swung all the momentum in favor of the Bears, but the Kats were able to snatch some momentum back with just over three minutes left in the game. Junior forward Chris Galbreath Jr. hit a turnaround jumper to give the Bearkats a four point lead, but then the Bears were able to respond right away with a layup by Kamba, bringing the game to two points once more.
Galbreath Jr. converted a free throw to put the Bearkats out in front by three points. However, Dewey III took the game into his own hands. Dewey hit back-to-back floaters with under two minutes left in the game to put the Bearkats up seven with 1:13 left. Junior forward Jamal Williams drew a charge between the two floaters, which was a big play in preserving the Bearkats’ lead.
SHSU was able to hold on for the remainder of the game, and escape the first round with a 77-69 victory.
“Those guys [the staff] were waiting to get Jamal’s length in there to help disturb that guy on his jump shot,” Hooten said. “The other thing about Jamal is that he’s been in our program for three years. He’s a glue guy, he understands, he’s solid and he makes the fundamentally sound play. It was a big play in the game, and it may have been the play of the game.”
Up next, the Bearkats will have a daunting task, as they will face the fourth seed Houston Baptist Huskies, a team that has already beaten them twice this season.
“They got a really good team,” Hooten said. “They gave us one of our only two losses at home this year. They are well coached, and they are big and they really rebound the ball.”
SHSU will take on HBU on Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Merrill Center in Katy.