Sam Houston advances past Texas A&M-CC 69-63

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KATY, Texas - Stop if you've seen this headline: Defense Keys Sam Houston State Victory.

For Bearkats fans, it's a sight to behold. The same can't be said for the rest of the Southland Conference.

The headline worked its magic again on Friday night, as Sam Houston's defense clamped down on Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in a 69-63 victory that led the third-seeded Bearkats to Saturday's tournament championship game against top-seeded Stephen F. Austin at 7:30 p.m., CT. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

“Free throw shooting” might have to be added to the latest Sam Houston headline, especially considering it was the charity stripe that helped the Bearkats keep the second-seeded Islanders at a distance despite an 11:30 stretch of the second half in which Sam Houston did not score a field goal.

“I told them in the locker room that two months ago, we probably couldn't have won a game like that,” Bearkats coach Jason Hooten said. “If we didn't outscore somebody or didn't shoot really good from the field, but we kept grinding, kept working, kept trying to get them to believe in it, and they've done that.”

“We've come a long way from where we started,” said Bearkats forward James Thomas, who scored 12 points.

Kaheem Ransom's (game-high 15 points) basket at the 17:14 mark gave Sam Houston (23-9) a 42-29 lead, yet it would not be until Thomas' layup with 5:44 remaining that a Bearkats possession would result in a field goal.

It was a painful missed opportunity for a young Corpus Christi (17-15) team that made its first tournament appearance since losing in the 2010 semifinals; while the Bearkats were struggling to find their range, the Islanders were only able to get as close as 45-40 at the 8:06 mark.

“It was a game that boiled down to the little things,” Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson said. “I thought our defense during that stretch was very, very good. We had a number of stops where we couldn't put the ball in the hoop on the other end.”

At one point in the second half, the two teams combined to hit just 3 of 26 attempts, yet the Bearkats survived by going to the line 29 times after intermission, hitting on 21.

Early on, A&M-Corpus Christi stayed in the hunt, trailing only 20-18 after Hameed Ali layup with 7:30 in the half. From there, Sam Houston began to pull away, using a 9-0 run that was capped off by Dakarai Henderson's first basket of the tourney at the 5:05 mark to give them a 29-18 edge.

The Bearkats were able to keep the Islanders at bay for the rest of the half, never allowing them to inch closer than nine points before taking a 39-29 lead at intermission.

Sam Houston was also able to contain John Jordan, holding the Islanders' leading scorer to 11 points, as the Bearkats effectively took the inside away from Jordan, who thrived this season by attacking the basket.

Saturday's tournament final will mark the third time the Bearkats and Lumberjacks squared off for the title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Sam Houston State has won both meetings, defeating SFA in 2003 and 2010.

“In my two years here, I haven't beaten SFA yet,” Thomas said. “That's how I want to go out. I want this team to get this win, and it would be real special to get them on the biggest stage. We're going to be ready. I know they're going to be ready.”

“Everybody wants to go to the championship game,” Hooten said. “We've had a really steady program the last 12 years. We kind of expect to be here in this game.”

Postgame Quotes…
Sam Houston State coach Jason Hooten
“We knew coming in it was going to be a grind it out type ball game. I am so proud of this team for being able to win a game like this. I told them in the locker room right after the game that two months ago we probably couldn’t win a game like that. We kept grinding and kept working and trying to get them to believe in what we were trying to accomplish…and they have done that. It’s all about them … they are the reason why we won this game tonight because they believed in each other.”

On facing Stephen F. Austin in the championship game:
“We have had a really steady program for the last 12 years and we expect to be here in this game. We are going to go get prepared like we did yesterday and today. They have a great team and they are well coached. They have beaten us twice this year … and if they beat us again then that means that they were just better than us.”

Sam Houston State guard Kaheem Ransom
On being able to win game in multiple ways:
“Last game we were able to make shots and we came out on fire. Tonight, I didn’t know that we didn’t score for that long of a stretch. But that just shows how tough-minded our team is … to be able to grind it out and get stops when we need them and get the win in a tough environment.”

On facing Stephen F. Austin in the championship game:
“It’s the last game for all the marbles. It’s going to be exciting. They are well coached … they play defense very well and they get after it. It’s going to be a great game and I am looking forward to it.”

Sam Houston State forward James Thomas
On being able to win game in multiple ways:
“Like coach said, two months ago we probably wouldn’t have won that game. But it just shows how much we have grew as a team and matured. We just came along way from where we started and we just want to win.”

On facing Stephen F. Austin in the championship game:
“We are looking forward to it. In my two years, I haven’t beaten SFA yet. I want our team to get this win … it would just be real special to get them on the biggest stage. We are going to be ready and I know they are going to be ready. We are going to come and play our hardest to get the win.”

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson
“A really hard fought game; if you look at a scale of one to 10, I thought Sam Houston was a 10 in doing the little things and we were probably a nine so we just came up a little bit short. I thought the missed free throws midway through the second half really hurt us. Our defense during that stretch was very good; during that stretch I want to say we had eight (stops) in a row. We just couldn’t put the ball in on the other end. Give them a lot of credit. They made free throws down the stretch and had some big shots.”

On eliminating Sam Houston three pointers:
“I thought a lot of it was adjustments. We’re a little bit of an immature team still. We’re young; we only have two seniors. Credit to our guys, we had a really good year but we still have a lot of growth in us in terms of maturity and really understanding in an environment like this when you’re playing for a chance to go to your conference championship game, you’ve got to put your foot on the gas. Sam Houston did that. I thought we kind of lifted at times.”

On depth of Sam Houston State:
“They’re a team. They’ve done a great job of it all year long. There’s not one guy you can focus in on. One scorer isn’t always the reason you win. They had a lot of guys stepped up.”

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi guard John Jordan
On the takeaway from experience at tournament:
“It’s just something you have to grow from. This was our first time in this position. I think that played a bit part in this game. We’ve just got to be bigger in the situation and grow from it.”

On first half difficulties:
“They crowded the paint. They know I like the get inside the paint and make plays. They did a great job of manning the paint and keeping bodies on me at all times. It was just a tough game all around. Not to make an excuse, we just didn’t make enough plays.”

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