After the void left by teams like Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston and Abilene Christian bolting for other leagues, some wondered if the Southland would survive, and if it did, who would step up and be the conference’s new consistent power.
The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders want to make the answer to that second question clear: it’s us.
We won’t know definitively for a while of course; perhaps they’re simply enjoying a temporary micro-run, perhaps their secret sauce is coach Steve Lutz, who has taken them dancing in his first two years and could conceivably be moving on soon. Either way, the Islanders took down the Northwestern State Demons in tight battle, 75-71, to take the Southland tourney crown and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
If they keep this up, maybe they’ll never feel bad anymore.
The answer to the first question, about whether the Southland will survive, looks to be a “yes” — at least for now, and it also partly explains why the tournament wasn’t staged at the Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy, Texas, like it had been since 2009. Starting this year and for the next four years, the tournament will be held in St. Charles, Louisiana, at the home court of the McNeese Cowboys, partly due to a negotiation by the Southland Conference and McNeese State to play tournament games at McNeese State in order to keep the Cowboys in the league.
McNeese, who barely snuck into the tournament as the No. 8-seed, took full advantage, knocking off No. 5-seed Texas A&M-Commerce in the first round and then 4-seed Nicholls in the quarterfinals. No. 7-seed New Orleans also thrived with the tournament moving in-state, defeating 6-seed Houston Baptist and No. 3-seed Southeastern Louisiana.
That set up the top two seeds, A&M-Corpus Christi and Northwestern State, to enter the tournament in the semifinal round against two statistically inferior teams, but two teams building momentum with two wins in two days each. McNeese couldn’t keep the magic going as Texas A&M-CC blew them out. New Orleans also conceded an early 17-point lead to Northwestern State before battling back to tie, but the Demons pulled away late for a four-point win.
That set up the two best teams in the league in the championship game, and the second-seed Demons took control early on the back of Southland Player of the Year Demarcus Sharp, who couldn’t miss early on. By the time he made his seventh field goal (and fifth in a row) just under the halfway mark of the first half, the Islanders had built a 26-10 lead. Also pitching in were Issac Haney and Ja’Monta Black, who each hit two triples in the early going.
Freshman Hansel Emmanuel, who had his left arm amputated at a young age, was once a feel-good story for merely being on a Division I basketball team, though he spent most of the year on the end of Northwestern State’s bench. But, in recent weeks, he has gained more and more meaningful minutes, culminating in his start in the conference title game. He outmuscled two defenders to rebounds in the early going and really got the NSU crowd into it,
But the Islanders fought back quickly, despite losing conference Defensive Player of the Year Terrion Murdix after three minutes to what looked to be a rough knee injury. Even without him, the Islanders started to turn Northwestern State over, get out in transition, and score easy baskets. Owen Dease came off of the bench for Corpus Christi to score 10 in the first half, including two key threes on back-to-back possessions to keep the momentum.
More glaringly, the Demons’ offensive schemes appeared to offer little complexity, with several possessions being complete isolation plays for Sharp, with the occasional kick-out for three. Sharp made several difficult shots but when he began to miss them, the Islanders were able to turn the tables and pull even by halftime.
The second half went largely back and forth for the first 10 minutes, with either pulling a possession or two in front, only for the other to pull even. Sharp’s jumper created a 52-52 tie with 8:20 to go. But the Islanders made a quick 12-4 burst at that point, taking an eight-point lead with just over four minutes to play. Four different Islanders scored over that stretch.
Four Sharp points and a Greedy Williams layup quickly pulled Northwestern State within two, but A&M-CC scored six of their own to push the lead up to eight again.
The lead remained at eight under two minutes to go when NSU scored a basket, then forced two consecutive Siemon Fryer turnovers, resulting in a Ja’Monta Black triple and a Sharp layup, making the game 72-71 with just under a minute to play. But after running down the clock, De’Lazarus Keys rebounded his own miss, and passed to Trevian Tennyson with only a small difference between the game and shot clocks. Tennyson took a mid-range shot anyway with 22 seconds to play, and buried it.
Now down 74-71, the Demons needed a 3, but Black – one of the nation’s leaders in 3-pointers made – took an ill-advised turn-around 3 that overshot the back rim by a couple of feet. Corpus Christi rebounded to ice the game.
Jackson led the Islanders with 17 points and six assists, followed by Dease’s 16 off the bench, Tennyson’s 14 and all-conference senior Isaac Mushila’s 10 points and nine rebounds. Sharp finished with 32 points for NSU on 15-31 shooting and 7 assists, all game-highs. Black had 15 points on four made 3s, Jalen Hampton finished with 13 and Haney had nine on three triples, but the rest of the team only scored two points.
And so the Islanders once again find themselves in the NCAA Tournament field; most bracketologists agree they will likely be slotted in the First Four in Dayton for a second consecutive year, barring several lower-seeded teams with tournament upsets at the end of Champ Week.
A huge upset over a top seed may be a big ask, especially with Murdix likely out for the tournament, but the Islanders will first go for their first tourney win in the First Four, a notable achievement for any program, and their players have quite a bit more experience this time around.