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Southland Conference championship: Stephen F. Austin is back in the NCAA Tournament

Different SFA team, same story.

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen F Austin is back to doing what it does best: winning its conference tournament. This isn’t your slightly older brother’s Stephen F Austin’s team though. In the three previous times the Lumberjacks have made the tournament, they had a combined conference record of 55-1. This year they went 14-4 in Conference play.

Early in the year, Stephen F Austin looked unstoppable. They started 10-1, with the one loss being to Mississippi State. They also beat LSU. A close loss to Missouri and a win over Arlington Baptist sent them into conference-play with a record of 11-2 (7-2 against Division 1 teams).

Then conference play exposed their flaws quickly. In the first game of the conference season, they lost to Southeastern Louisiana, who at the time wasn’t thought of as a serious contender for the Southland (little did we know). They also lost to Central Arkansas (Jordan Howard had 43 points) and got swept by Lamar.

Stephen F Austin received the 3 seed in the Southland tournament, facing the winner of Central Arkansas and Lamar. Central Arkansas toppled Lamar due to a late run and stifling defense that allowed only two Lamar points in the last nine minutes of the game.

Stephen F Austin then faced Jordan Howard and Central Arkansas. The Lumberjacks stopped everything Central Arkansas threw at them and held the Southland Player of the Year to just 10 points on their way to a win.

Stephen F Austin moved on to face against regular-season conference co-champions Nicholls State. Nicholls plays at a particularly high pace, which is perfect for Stephen F Austin’s high-pressure defense. Nicholls shot just 28 percent, with its two best players shooting a combined 13-40 and everyone else shooting a combined 4-19. Stephen F Austin controlled the whole game.

On to the championship game, it went back and forth for a while, but then a run by Stephen F Austin gave the Lumberjacks a seven-point lead headed into halftime that seemed insurmountable.

In the second half, Stephen F. Austin quickly pushed the lead up to 14. Marlain Veal of Southeastern Louisiana looked gassed and it looked like a foregone conclusion that the Lumberjacks would be Southland champions yet again. A technical foul from Ivan Canete gave Southeastern Louisiana momentum and the Lions rode it on a 22-2 run to give them the lead, 49-43, with just under six minutes left. Stephen F Austin then did what it does best: it forced mistakes. Two SE Louisiana turnovers led to two Stephen F Austin baskets, and a put-back layup tied the game at 49 at the under-four-minute timeout. A big three by Kevon Harris gave Stephen F. Austin a 52-51 lead after two Veal free throws. The Lumberjacks then forced two turnovers and a desperation three at the end of the shot clock the next three possessions. The Lumberjacks scored just one point in that time, and it didn’t seem like either team would score again. TJ Holyfield then made it a two-possession game with a tough layup with a minute left, but it was quickly answered by two free throws. SE Louisiana intentionally fouled with 43 seconds left.

Then Veal quickly answered with a layup of his own and then fouled to force more free throws by Stephen F Austin. Two made free throws proved to be insurmountable for SE Louisiana.

Stephen F. Austin became Southland champions once again.