The fifth seeded Sam Houston State Bearkats (20-13) continued their attempt at an improbable run of four wins in four days Friday evening against top-seeded, and regular season Southland Conference champion, New Orleans Privateers (19-11) in a semifinals matchup at the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy.
The Bearkats faced the Privateers just once this season, and came away with a 70-68 win in New Orleans on Jan. 12. However, SHSU never held a lead in Friday’s matchup and fell to UNO 75-63.
For the first time this tournament, the Bearkats were behind on the scoreboard. A layup by sophomore guard John Dewey III got the scoring started for the Bearkats, but conference player of the year senior forward Erik Thomas quickly answered for the Privateers with a layup off a backdoor cut. That score spurred the Privateers to go on a 6-0 run, giving them a lead that they would not relinquish.
Junior forward Makur Puou was an early problem for the Bearkats on the offensive end of the floor. After hitting the early mid-range jumper, Puou hit the offensive glass hard for two baskets after offensive rebounds, including a one-and-one, which gave the Privateers a seven point lead just five minutes into the game.
The Privateers were quickly able to extend their lead to 11 after a layup by senior guard Nate Frye. Shortly after, junior forward Michael Zeno threw down a ferocious dunk on the fast break.
“I thought we came out a little flat,” head coach Jason Hooten said. “I don’t know if it was just fatigue or whatever, but I think the biggest thing you have to do is just give New Orleans credit because they came out really hungry tonight, and they just took it to us.”
The Bearkats trailed by as many as 16 in the first half before some major adjustments came.
The Bearkats went from playing a man defense and switched to a 3-2 matchup zone in order to counteract the Privateers consistent penetration. The Bearkats also put more shooting on the floor by putting in sophomore guard Cameron Delaney and sophomore forward Albert Almanza extended minutes. The Bearkats were able to make up some ground on the lead with that adjustment, but they could not avoid turnovers on the offensive end of the floor.
The overall length and athleticism of the Privateers was something the Bearkats simply could not overcome in the first half. The Bearkats shot just 37.5 percent from the floor in the first half compared to the Privateers 62.5 percent. SHSU also had 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes, after totaling just nine turnovers in Thursday’s game against HBU. The Privateers turned the ball over just four times in the first half.
“They have some areas that are just a little different than ours,” Hooten said. “Their four man is 6’8” and 230 [pounds], and their offense is geared to throw the ball inside. They got a couple touches early in the game in there. They got a couple of calls, and next thing you know we are in foul trouble.”
The Bearkats energy and intensity picked up at the start of the second half. Senior big man Aurimas Majauskas scored six straight points to start the final 20 minutes. The Kats eventually cut the Privateer lead to 10, but UNO quickly answered with a 9-0 run spearheaded by senior guard Christavious Gill. The senior nailed a three-pointer, which put the nail in the coffin for the Bearkats. Any momentum that the Bearkats may have had was stolen right there by that Privateers run.
The Bearkats were able to make a run of their own in the middle of the second half, cutting the lead back down to 12 points on a couple of occasions after a three by sophomore guard Josh Delaney, and a tip in by senior forward Torry Butler.
It did not look pretty for most of the half, but the Privateers were in total control of the game.
However, the Bearkats responded with a furious rally. Sophomore guard Cameron Delaney entered the game for the first time and immediately made an impact. Cameron Delaney had five straight points to bring the Bearkats within seven. Following two Privateer free throws, senior guard Dakarai Henderson hit a three to cut the lead to six with just over two minutes remaining.
“I tell my teammates every night that we’re all that we have and the game ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” senior guard Dakarai Henderson said. “We just had to dig down deep, and every time that we’re down we find a way to come back.”
The six point deficit was as close as the Bearkats ever got. After two free throws by the Privateers, Josh Delaney had a chance to cut the lead to five, but could not get the shot to go and the Privateers just hit free throws the rest of the way to seal the game for them, giving them a 75-63 win over the Bearkats.
“You have to give them credit,” Hooten said. “They withstood that run, and they made free throws when they needed to, and made a couple of tough plays down the stretch.”
The Bearkats season ends in the SLC tourney semifinals. Senior starters Henderson, Paul Baxter and Majauskas played their final game Friday night, and the Bearkats will have a lot to replace going into next season as the three seniors all finished their careers in the 1,000-point club.
The Bearkats are expected to return sophomore point guard John Dewey III and junior forward Chris Galbreath Jr. next season. Both players are expected to play big roles in getting the Bearkats back to Katy next season.