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Learning to finish has propelled Sam Houston State to a historic league start

The Bearkats have been the toast of the Southland.

NCAA Basketball: Sam Houston State at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an eye that comes with 26 years of coaching college basketball. Certain things stand out, like a crisp defensive possession here or there, or an offense possession where the ball moves especially well.

In late December, Sam Houston State was wrapping up a 4-8 non-conference with just two of those wins coming against Division I competition. For a team pegged to finish in the middle of the Southland, it seemed about right. But Bearkats’ coach Jason Hooten’s eyes saw differently.

He just didn’t know how differently.

“I did see some things toward the end of December that I liked,” Hooten said. “There were bits and pieces. I’d probably be lying if I said I expected this much of a fast start.”

A month and a half later, SHSU has exploded. The flashes of defensive potential and chemistry Hooten saw back in floundering December have led to a 12-0 start to Southland play, and a 13-game winning streak overall — the program’s longest in its Division I era.

The Bearkats’ win last Saturday was a classic, as they were able to hold off second-place Abilene Christian on the road in double overtime. The Wildcats erased a 15-point halftime deficit to force the extra period, but a late offensive burst from Marcus Harris and fortitude at the line from Cameron Delaney allowed SHSU to still walk away with a victory.

It was a landmark win that may not have happened earlier in the year.

Learning to finish

SHSU had its chances at momentum-generating wins early in the year.

Late scoring barrages by Georgia and Colorado State swayed close games out of their favor, and the Bearkats came up just short in Orem, Utah against a Utah Valley team riding a 19-game home winning streak.

“The biggest thing is trying to finish,” Hooten said. “We had so many games early in the season where we had a chance to win and just didn’t finish. Every team is different, every group each year is new. This group was just trying to learn how to win.”

That all changed when conference play began.

Kai Mitchell was there with a finishing play in the Abilene Christian game. With under 20 seconds left in the first overtime and the Bearkats trailing by two, the junior forward calmly took a pass from senior Cameron Delaney near the rim and tied the game. It was part of a 21-point, seven-rebound outing that has been par for the course this year for the Hutchinson Community College transfer.

Mitchell’s immediate impact in the post (12.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG) has been vital for a team that lost All-Southland first team forward Christopher Galbreath, Jr. to graduation.

“We felt like he had a chance to be pretty good,” Hooten said. “When we recruited him that’s what we felt like we needed most, a guy like him that’s versatile that can play on the perimeter and also pass, and do lot of things out of our offense.”

Finishing plays popped up again in the Bearkats most recent win, a one-point escape at Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Wednesday night that notched the program’s best start ever in Southland play. Mitchell was strong again down the stretch, as SHSU erased a 60-52 deficit with just over eight minutes left.

So was senior point guard Josh Delaney (8 assists), who found junior wing Chad Bowie and his brother Cameron for big three’s in the final minutes. The Delaney connection has helped fuel the Southland’s most efficient offense in league play, with Hooten seeing an uptick since Josh took over the point guard role full time in early December.

That family backcourt nearly didn’t happen, as Cameron spent his first year at Denver. Their sister Angela, who played for the SHSU women’s team, saw a transfer as inevitable.

“When Cameron went to Denver, we both thought he was crazy and knew he would be homesick,” Angela said. “Now that he’s here, we’re focused on competing. He helps us a lot.”

The brothers have now helped the Bearkats surge up the league standings. But since this is the Southland, there’s a persistent purple question mark.

Unseating the King

When you go 15-3 in league play, the percentages say you’re walking away with a league championship.

That’s not how it played out for SHSU in 2014-15, where the Bearkats played second fiddle to a 17-1 Stephen F. Austin that would win its third consecutive regular season championship. And that’s how it had gone for the Bearkats in the hardwood’s version of the Battle of the Piney Woods.

Over a stretch from 2012 — Hooten’s second season in charge — to 2016, the Bearkats lost 13 consecutive games to SFA, three times being knocked out of the league tournament by their rival. So when SHSU dumped the Lumberjacks in the teams’ first meeting this season on Feb. 2, Hooten wasn’t shy about admitting it meant a bit more.

To him, at least.

“We’ve obviously been dominated at times by them,” Hooten said. “But I think it probably had more meaning for me personally than it did our guys.”

To his players? They were just disappointed they’d let the Lumberjacks break 70 points in a 22-point blowout.

Like it has been during Hooten’s nine-year tenure, defense has been a calling card for this Bearkats’ team. In a philosophy that was imprinted by his mentor — longtime Tarleton State coach and 600-win club member Lonn Reisman — SHSU has used a disruptive defense to force teams into turnovers at the 23rd-best rate in the country.

“We got to conference and got some confidence and started to put some low scores on people and I think it’s our identity,” Hooten said. “With that comes hard play and toughness, and activity and when we’re flying around and active, that’s when we’re at our best.”

The Bearkats’ best has been good enough for a historic start to league play and a three-game lead in the standings with just under a month until the league tournament. For a team that’s begun to finish off games, it’ll now look to finish out a season with the program’s first regular season title and NCAA appearance since 2010.

To Hooten, his team seems to have the right mindset. After the SFA win, he said his players were excited but not overly amped; they were focusing on the next game.

“Was I excited about it? Sure,” he said, “But it just felt like another win, in terms of we’ve got more to do here, there’s a lot more left here.”