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Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston St. advance to Southland Championship

For the second year in a row, the "Battle of the Piney Woods" between Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State will decide the Southland Conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the semis, SFA handled the explosive Northwestern State Demons while SHSU furiously rallied past Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Jason Hooten's Bearkats rallied to advance to Southland Championship
Jason Hooten's Bearkats rallied to advance to Southland Championship
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

#1 Stephen F. Austin 91, #4 Northwestern St. 79

In what has become a can’t miss clash of styles between two excellent teams, Stephen F. Austin’s precise execution once again toppled Northwestern State’s frantic athleticism in a very entertaining first semifinal at the Southland Tournament.

Five Lumberjacks scored in double figures, and all 10 players who saw action made at least one field goal. What makes SFA so dangerous is their depth. On any given night, you never know who in the supporting cast will step up alongside the Southland’s last two Player of the Year winners Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup. On Friday, freshman Ty Charles and junior Jared Johnson led the team with 16 points each. Parker scored 15 (on 10-12 shooting from the free throw line) and Walkup added 13. As a team SFA assisted on 22 of their 30 made field goals. They shot 53% from the floor, made eight three pointers, and nailed 23-of-26 from the free throw line.

While it never felt like SFA was seriously threatened, they could never totally shake the explosive Demons, either. Jalan West was his usual brilliant self, scoring 25 points with nine assists. Zeek Woodley scored 17, but appeared to be hobbled by a leg injury all game long which affected his explosiveness. Sharpshooting Sabri Thompson added 16 off the bench for the nation’s highest scoring offense.

After a 30 foot buzzer beater by West had the Demons within four at the half, the Jacks clamped down in the final 20 minutes. A dominant performance on the glass, especially offensively, never let the Demons make the sustained run they needed to get over the hump. SFA out rebounded the Demons 34-23 in the game after a 19-10 advantage (with 10 offensive rebounds) in the second half.

After the game it was announced that Northwestern State will participate in the CIT, hosting a first round game next week.

#2 Sam Houston St. 70, #3 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 67

Sam Houston State survived a slow start, rallied to take a lead, fell behind again, then franticly rallied to stun the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders 70-67.

A very slow start saw SHSU trailing for much of the first half, including a 29-21 deficit at the break. Early in the second half 6-11 center Michael Holyfield, who had been the only reliable option for the Bearkats, picked up two quick fouls giving him four for the game and a spot on the bench. It looked bleak for SHSU, but that’s when senior Jabari Peters stepped up. Peters scored 11 points over the next four minutes helping the Kats trim a nine point deficit down to two. A three point play by Paul Baxter gave SHSU a brief lead, but A&M-CC responded with 21-12 run that included three three-pointers. The Islanders took a 60-52 lead into the under-eight timeout. The Bearkats, known most this season for their outstanding defense, then completely locked in and make the final 7:28 miserable on A&M-CC.

Over the next three and a half minutes, SHSU forced three turnovers and A&M-CC missed all six field goals they attempted. Suddenly the Kats were back within one, 60-59. A Bryce Douvier three pointer and a Jelani Currie layup snapped the drought and gave the Islanders a 65-61 lead with exactly three minutes to play, but the Kats defensively would not be denied. Peters made a free throw, then they forced consecutive misses by the explosive John Jordan. A three point play by Dakarai Henderson tied the game with 2:11 to play. The Kats then played a great defensive possession, denying Jordan the ball. Late in the shot clock Currie had to take a jumper which missed. On the offensive end Peters drilled his fifth three, giving SHSU a 68-65 lead with 1:20 to play. The Kats forced another turnover, but couldn’t convert a kill shot leaving the Islanders a final opportunity at the tie. Or so we thought. Jordan dribbled out the possession down by three, eventually driving for a dunk, but he left just four seconds left on the clock. Kaheem Ransom hit two free throws, and a final heave by Jordan missed wide at the buzzer.

In total, SHSU’s defense held A&M-CC to 2-of-9 from the floor with four turnovers over the final 7:28, outscoring the Islanders 18-7 to snatch the win and a spot in the Southland Championship.

Peters led the Bearkats with 19 points, making 5-of-7 from behind the arc. Holyfield was a major force, despite playing just 18 minutes due to foul trouble. He scored 12 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in those limited minutes.

Jordan paced the Islanders with his 20 points. He also dished five assists and grabbed five rebounds. Douvier was the only other Islander in double figures, scoring 13 points while grabbing seven boards.

In their two games this regular season, Stephen F. Austin handled Sam Houston State both times. Round one at SHSU was over early as the Lumberjacks used a 25-7 start to cruise to a 21 point road win. In the season finale at SFA, the Kats were more competitive but SFA led for much of the contest and eventually pulled out a nine point win.