The fifth seeded Sam Houston State Bearkats played their second game in as many days Thursday evening against the fourth seeded Houston Baptist Huskies in the quarterfinals of the Southland Conference Tournament at the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy.
Despite falling to the Huskies twice in the regular season, the Bearkats played a strong game, defeating HBU 63-59 to advance to the semifinals.
“I think right now we’re just trying to make the most of it and more than anything they just really want to get back to playing the way they know their capable of playing,” head coach Jason Hooten said. “We’ve done it for two days and we’ve got to go try and do it again tomorrow.”
Junior forward Chris Galbreath Jr. was the impact player for SHSU Thursday and he got things rolling right from the start. Galbreath Jr. nailed three of the Bearkats’ first five shots, and with help from an and-one by senior guard Paul Baxter, the Bearkats built a lead they would never surrender. However, a team cannot win wire-to-wire without strong defensive play. SHSU locked down on the defensive end for the first five minutes, holding HBU to only one made shot during that span.
After going scoreless for four minutes, the Huskies’ size inside made the game interesting.
HBU’s junior center Josh Ibarra, who was named to the 2016-17 All-Southland Conference team, used his entire 6-foot-11-inch frame to take advantage of the Bearkats’ undersized players. Ibarra carried the Huskies team on his back in the first half, scoring 14 of his team’s 26 points in the first 20 minutes of action. The big man also made a layup as time expired, but the Kats went into the locker room with a 28-26 lead.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game,” senior guard Dakarai Henderson said. “We haven’t really played our best the past two games and they’ve been a little more physical than us.”
Coming out of the break, SHSU’s offense started to get loose.
Sophomore guard John Dewey III drilled the first shot of the second half to get the Bearkats going. HBU sophomore guard Braxton Bonds made a layup off the glass to tie the game 30-30, but that is when Henderson started to get into a rhythm. Henderson made back-to-back shots, including a three-pointer, to give the Bearkats a 35-30 lead.
The senior scored the Bearkats’ next three buckets, as SHSU’s lead continued to grow. Galbreath Jr. extended the Bearkat lead to double digits, 40-30, by making a shot and drawing a foul with 15:03 left to play.
The second half of Thursday’s game was all about Henderson and Galbreath Jr. The two combined to score 16 second half points, and besides Dewey III’s opening half jumper, were the only Bearkats to see the scoring column until Dewey III nailed another jumper with 10:43 remaining in the game.
Like Wednesday night’s first round victory over the University of Central Arkansas, the turn of the tide came late in the game for SHSU.
The Bearkats were up by six points with 3:23 left to play when HBU started to inch closer. Senior forward Torry Butler converted two free throws for the Kats, but senior forward Corey Lasher made a shot on the other end for HBU. The momentum switched into the Huskies’ hands when they forced a shot clock violation. On the next inbound, Husky sophomore guard went down the court and nailed a three-pointer to cut the Bearkat lead to a single point with 2:29 left to play.
Holding only a 55-54 lead, the Bearkats ran down the court and turned the ball over again, but this time it was senior center Aurimas Majauskas picking up the offensive foul. However, SHSU got the ball back and Dewey III drew a foul and converted a free throw to give the Kats a 56-54 lead with 1:19 remaining in the game.
Junior guard Jamal Williams made the biggest play of the game for SHSU with only 56 ticks left on the clock. Williams stole the ball at the top of the three-point arc and drew a foul. Williams made one of two free throws to extend SHSU’s lead to 57-54.
“I knew number three was a shooter so I wanted to get all into him and not give him any space,” Williams said. “He put the ball above his head a little bit so I just kind of hit it just to see if I would get it and he just lost it so I went and got it. He fouled me and that was it.”
The Huskies were not able to comeback after the Williams’ steal, as they had to intentionally foul to try and gain the lead. Dewey III, who is shooting 72 percent from the free throw line, ultimately iced things for the Bearkats by making seven of 10 free throws to end the game, giving SHSU a 63-59 victory.
Galbreath Jr. finished the game with a double double and was also the leading scorer for SHSU. Galbreath Jr. notched a team-high 15 points while also snatching 10 boards.
“He’s a very talented player. He has a high-motor and he’s very active on the glass,” Hooten said. “He creates a lot of different things for everyone on the floor. CG [Galbreath Jr.] has a lot of energy, and when he brings it, he’s a tough player.”
Dewey III followed Galbreath Jr. with 14 points, while Henderson added 12 points.
Henderson’s performance Thursday night marks the second straight game he has seen double digits in the scoring column. SHSU’s all-time leader in three pointers struggled this season putting the ball in the basket, but he has found his groove at the conference tournament.
“It’s a good feeling [to find himself on the offensively],” Henderson said. “My teammates have always had confidence in me and the coaches. Being in a slump as a shooter, the only way you can get out of it is to keep shooting and have confidence in yourself. With me being able to find my groove, and seeing that it helps the team even more, it means a lot.”
Hooten and his staff made adjustments in the locker room during halftime and the changes paid off on the defensive end. After allowing Ibarra to score 14 points in the first half, the Kats held him to just a single bucket in the second 20 minute frame.
“Our big guys down low did a tremendous job,” Henderson said. “The big guy in the first half got easy buckets off loose balls, but we pretty much locked him down in the second half. Defense wins games and we just had to be more physical.”
SHSU will now play the No. 1 seed University of New Orleans Privateers on Friday at 5 p.m. in Katy. The winner will advance to play in the Southland Conference Championship game.
“They’re the conference [regular season] champion and the number one seed,” Hooten said. “We’re going to have to play well and we’re going to have to play like we did tonight defensively. They’re very big. They’re athletic. They’re well-coached and I expect it to be a knockdown drag out.”