March 3, 2012
BEAUMONT - Playing in their final basketball game at the Montagne Center on Saturday afternoon, Lamar's seniors made sure that the Cardinals would not suffer another heartbreaking loss at the hands of Southland Conference rival McNeese State.
Instead, the Cardinals picked up an impressive 78-68 victory over the Cowboys to clinch the SLC East Division Crown with an 11-5 conference mark. History was also made as Lamar improved to 20-11 on the season, giving the Cards their first 20-win season since 1988.
For the first time since 2008, Lamar will be playing in the Southland Conference Tournament. The Cardinals have secured the No. 3 seed in the eight-team tournament, and will face sixth-seeded Northwestern State on Wednesday afternoon at 2:30 from the Merrell Center in Katy.
"These last two weeks and last three games have really been crazy," said senior guard Mike James who led all scorers with 23 points. "There have been a lot of ups and downs and a lot media people asking a lot of questions. I think it's a credit to us that we stayed focused.
"We've bonded together these last two weeks. I thought we had a good team earlier in the season, but then we had that one really bad game. Instead of letting it take us down, we rebounded, came together and focused on playing better. These last three games have been great for us, great for the community, great for Lamar and great for everybody."
After leading by as many as 19 points, the Cardinals saw McNeese State (15-14 overall, 10-6 in the Southland) storm back to within four points with just over eight minutes to play. Senior Patrick Richard went to the free throw line with a chance to get his Cowboys within two, but missed the front end of a one-and-one.
LU senior Brandon Davis knocked down a 3-pointer just 16 seconds later and Lamar was ahead 58-51. James added a layup to push the Cardinals' lead back to nine points at 60-51 with just under seven minutes to play in the game.
Not wanting to suffer another haunting defeating like it had earlier this season in Lake Charles when Richard scored nine straight points over the final 1:16 to give the Cowboys a 57-54 win, Lamar pushed back at the Cowboys and built its lead to 12 points with 1:41 on the clock.
After a Richard 3-pointer with 34 seconds to play made it a 72-65 game, Lamar hit six straight free throws to secure the victory. The last two from James at the 13-second mark gave Lamar a 78-65 lead and prompted LU head coach Pat Knight to take his seniors out of the game for one final round of applause from the season-high crowd of 5,138 fans.
"They're a good team so I knew they would make a run at us," said Knight. "But every time they made a run at us, we were able to come back. Kids play to the crowd and it was unbelievable how many people showed up today to give us a great home court advantage.
"I thought we did a good job defensively on them and this is a great victory for us. I think we have built some momentum with three straight wins, but we'll let the guys enjoy tonight and tomorrow before going back to work."
Lamar built an 18-12 lead in the first half, only to see McNeese use an 11-2 run to move ahead 23-20. Kevin Hardy's free throw at the 9:16 mark to close the run would be the Cowboys' last points of the first half. LU closed the half on a 20-0 run to build a 40-23 lead at the half.
The Cardinals shot 53.3 percent in the first half while limiting the Cowboys to 31.3 percent shooting. Lamar also took advantage of nine first half turnovers by McNeese State, outscoring the visitors 11-6 in points off turnovers.
Both teams looked to pound it in the paint with the Cowboys scoring 38 points and Lamar scoring 32 in the lane. McNeese was able to outrebound Lamar 40-37, including 16 offensive rebounds that led to a 15-4 advantage in second chance points.
The big difference came at the free throw line where the Cards made 21-of-30, while McNeese was just 7-of-16. Senior guard Anthony Miles, who tied Mike Olliver for the school record by playing in his 122nd career game, would hit all 10 of his free throw attempts en route to 17 points.
Miles added six rebounds and five assists in becoming the first player in school history with at least 1,400 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists.
In addition to his 23 points, James would grab a career-high eight rebounds. James closes the regular season with a team-leading 16.8 points per game scoring average.
Devon Lamb added 19 points, seven rebounds, three blocked shots and two steals. Lamb was key to stopping the McNeese run in the second half as the senior guard scored five straight points over a 51 second span to give Lamar a 65-55 lead with just 4:26 to play.
"It feels wonderful now," said Lamb. "I never thought we would get to this point. They (the Cowboys) were getting too close to us. I just made up my mind to drive the ball to the basket and make shots or draw fouls."
Davis finished with nine points and seven boards. Seniors Charlie Harper and Vincenzo Nelson each came off the bench for Lamar with Harper finishing with two points and three rebounds, and Nelson adding four points, a rebound and a steal.
Dontae Cannon led the Cowboys with 18 points, hitting 7-of-13 from the field and all three of his 3-point attempts. Center Rudy Turner added a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Richard, who leads the Southland in scoring at 18.3 points per game as the day started, was just 6-of-17 from the floor in scoring his 17 points..