A&M-Corpus Christi will meet No. 1 New Orleans tomorrow in tournament championship at 8:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2
KATY, Texas – Denied by Stephen F. Austin in last year’s Southland title game, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi laid in wait hoping for a chance at redemption.
On Friday, the Islanders made the most of their second shot.
Head coach Willis Wilson’s team scored the game’s first nine points and withstood a withering second half rally as second-seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi ended SFA’s bid at a fourth straight conference tournament championship with a 77-69 win at the Merrell Center, putting them into Saturday’s 8 p.m. CT matchup against top-seed New Orleans and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“This was just a long, hard-fought game. I don’t know another way to describe it,” said Wilson, who brings the Islanders (20-10) to their third conference tournament championship game.
“For me as a coach, I normally find a rhythm during the game, but this was one of those games where I think I was on edge, but the players gave me a lot of confidence with their execution and their focus.”
Wilson couldn’t be blamed for being on edge, especially when SFA (18-14) worked their way back from a 55-37 deficit at the 13:23 mark of the second half to pull within 68-63 on a pair of free throws from Samuli Nieminen with 1:42 left.
The Lumberbacks could not draw closer as Cole Martinez knocked home a three-pointer that was followed by a fast break layup from Kareem South to give A&M-Corpus Christi a 73-63 margin with 1:12 left. A Leon Gilmore III triple got SFA back to within five at 74-69 with 16 seconds remaining, yet hopes for a miracle finish were dashed.
“We knew coming in that we were going to have to fight them to secure the building,” said Wilson. “This has been their building for a long, long time.”
The Islanders leaned heavily on the shoulders of First Team All-Conference forward Rashawn Thomas, who scored a game-high 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds to go along with three steals and a pair of blocks. Thomas played 36 minutes on Friday and was on the court for most of the second half with four fouls.
The senior from Oklahoma City delivered one of his biggest shots of the season when he nailed a three-pointer with three minutes left that gave the Islanders a 68-60 lead, a basket that came moments after SFA guard Dallas Cameron knocked down a jumper to pull the Lumberjacks within 65-60.
“I knew I had to be confident shooting the ball,” said Thomas, who was the focus of numerous double-teams. “Once I knew I had the open three, I just knew I had to be confident.”
Confidence ran high for the Islanders from the outset, as they jumped out to a 9-0 lead as Thomas scored four points early. A basket from Martinez, who finished with 16 points, expanded the margin to 13-3 just 4:18 into the contest.
“Their kids just came out and jumped at it,” said SFA head coach Kyle Keller.
The Islanders allowed the Lumberjacks to cut the deficit to 18-12 with 11:02 in the half before ripping off a 7-0 run to subdue an SFA team that shot just 39.2 percent from the field. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi would not allow the Lumberjacks to get closer than nine the rest of the first half and took a 42-29 lead into intermission.
Saturday’s title game marks only the second time since 2009 that neither SFA nor Sam Houston State — which was eliminated by New Orleans earlier on Friday night — will not play for a berth in the NCAA Tourney.
New Orleans won the previous meeting against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, holding off the Islanders in a 73-72 overtime win at home on Dec. 31, 2016.
The loss also marked the end of Cameron’s time at SFA. One of the most decorated players in conference history, Cameron won 100 games as a Lumberjack and played in three straight NCAA Tournaments.
“To say I was able to play in three NCAA Tournaments and all of the other accolades makes me truly blessed,” he said.
“I’m grateful for Stephen F. Austin to give me the chance to continue to play basketball on the highest level and be part of some great teams, coaches and players. I’ve been able to establish friendships that will last a lifetime is the most rewarding experience.”