March 10, 2012
KATY - Pat Knight's successful first season at Lamar University got even better Saturday afternoon at the Merrell Center as his Cardinals rolled over McNeese State 70-49 in the Southland Conference Tournament championship game to earn the league's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
The Cardinals will be making their sixth ever appearance in the "Big Dance," and first since the 1999-2000 season. There will be a watch party Sunday afternoon at 4:30 at Buffalo Wild Wings in Beaumont as the Cardinals wait to find out who they will face in the opening round.
"The fans made it like a home game," said Knight. "It was unbelievable when I walked out. Our fans have been great at home, and to come up here, it gave us the advantage today. They were unbelievable. They were up the whole game and I don't think we could have done it without them."
Knight becomes the third head coach in school history to take the Cardinals to the NCAA Tournament in his first season, and along with his father Bob Knight, becomes the 12th father and son duo to lead their teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Legendary Lamar coach Billy Tubbs, who sat courtside for the game, took the Cardinals to two straight NCAA Tournaments in 1979 and 1980 before Pat Foster took over and went back to the NCAA's in 1981. Mike Deane coached Lamar to the 2000 NCAA Tournament in his first season with the Cardinals.
While Lamar's offense was clicking Saturday, the defense proved to be the difference in the game. Lamar limited the Cowboys to paltry 31.1 percent shooting in improving to 23-11 on the year. Leading the way was redshirt sophomore Osas Ebomwonyi who came off the bench to post career-highs with nine points, nine rebounds and six of LU's seven blocked shots.
"He can defend and can make shots around the bucket," said Knight about what Ebomwonyi brings to the team. "He doesn't try to do things that he can't do. He has been a big force for us. He changes the game. The best thing about him is that I have him for two more years. But he really changed the game for us."
After building a 33-21 lead at the half, Lamar saw the Cowboys (17-15) open the second half on a 12-2 run to get within two points at 35-33 with 15:29 to play. Mike James, who scored 26 points on his way to tournament MVP honors, stopped the bleeding with a layup that gave Lamar a four-point advantage.
The Cowboys, who played only six players due to injuries, could not stay with the depth of the Cardinals. Devon Lamb hit a jumper at the 10:15 mark that capped a 13-4 Lamar run and pushed LU's lead back to 11 points at 48-37.
MSU star Patrick Richard hit a pair of free throws with 9:35 on the clock that made it a 48-39 game, but that was as close as the Cowboys would get. With senior point guard Anthony Miles controlling the offense, and Ebomwonyi handling the defense, Lamar pulled away for the historic victory.
Lamar controlled the backboards, outrebounding MSU 40-33. In addition to Ebomwonyi's nine boards, James grabbed a career-high nine rebounds and Miles finished with eight. The Cards were able to keep the Cowboys from easy baskets and enjoyed a 34-20 advantage in points in the paint.
Richard opened the game with a layup and the Cowboys, who led by as many as six points early, were ahead for the first 10 minutes of the game. A pair of Lamb free throws at the 9:26 mark gave Lamar its first lead at 14-13, and the Cards took the lead for good less than two minutes later on a Lamb layup that made it 16-15 with 7:51 to play in the first half.
Much like they did a week ago in their 78-68 home win over McNeese to end the regular season, the Cardinals finished the first half on a big run. Last week it was a 20-0 run over the final 9:16, while Saturday it was a 25-8 stretch over the final 12:12.
The Cardinals forced the first half action, attacking the rim and either scoring or going to the free throw line. Lamar hit 7-of-8 from the line in the first half, and 16-of-21 for the game. McNeese did not attempt a first half free throw and went 7-of-9 in the second half.
Despite shooting eight fewer times than the Cowboys, Lamar made six more buckets and shot a solid 47.2 percent from the floor. The Cardinals committed just six turnovers in the game and finished the three-game tournament with just 23 turnovers.
Miles and Lamb would join James on the all-tournament team. Miles, a Houston native who was playing in front of family and friends, dished out a game-high five assists and committed just one turnover.
"I knew that we had talent on this team, and hiring Coach Knight just meshed it all together," said Miles, who made it to the SLC Tournament for the first time in his four-year career. "After three years in a row of not making the conference tournament, I will take that if this is the result. It was a long, hard-fought season, and we just did it."
Brandon Davis added seven points and five rebounds for Lamar, hitting two of the Cardinals' four 3-pointers in the game. Senior forward Charlie Harper, who had a big tournament for Lamar off the bench, added six points and two rebounds while playing strong defense on Richard.
Richard would lead McNeese with 16 points, but he was a dismal 4-of-20 from the field. Dontae Cannon added 13 points and Desharick Guidry finished with six points and a game-high 10 rebounds.