By: Michael Hanich | Sports Editor
It was ‘do or die’ time for the South Alabama Jaguars men’s basketball team last Tuesday night in their regular-season finale. The Jaguars (19-11; 12-7 in Sun Belt Conference play) hosted the Texas State Bobcats (20-10; 13-6) in the Mitchell Center. The Jaguars were putting an eight-game win streak on the line on Tuesday. Both the Jaguars and the Bobcats were in a fight for something much more valuable. The winner of this game would clinch the second seed in the 2020 Sun Belt Conference Championship Tournament behind the Little Rock Trojans, which would give them a double game bye into the semi-finals.
The Jaguars got out to a hot 12-0 scoring run three minutes and 43 seconds into the game with guard Chad Lott scoring six points and forward Trhae Mitchell scoring four points. Over the next seven minutes of game time, the Bobcats turned it into a tied ball game. The Bobcats got on a 15-0 on the Jaguars with 7:17 left in the first half.
The Jaguars ended the first half on a 15-2 scoring run with those two points from the Bobcats coming from free throws. South Alabama didn’t allow a field goal from the Bobcats in the final seven minutes of game time. South Alabama outscored the Bobcats 32-25 in the first half due to the fast start and a great finish in the first half.
Lott and Mitchell accounted for 12 points each in the first half. Lott also accounted for two steals and freshman guard Tyreke Locure accounted for three steals. The Jaguars were shooting an efficient 50% from the field (15-for-30) while holding the Bobcats to a 40.9% (9-for-22) shooting from the field 22.2% (2-for-9) from the three-point line.
The second half was a clash of two highly aggressive defenses as the Bobcats tied the game 32-32 with 17:23 minutes left in the game. After barely any exchanges, no team led than more than four points until guard Herb McGee sank his second free throw with 13:29 minutes left in the game. No team scored a bucket for the next three minutes and 47 seconds of game time until 7:28 left with a bucket by Bobcats guard Mason Harrell.
The Bobcats outscored the Jaguars 10-4 ahead by six with 3:39 minutes left in the game when South Alabama head coach Richie Riley. Coach Riley was hyped but determined for his team as he gave them composure to play more calm and smooth basketball.
Guard Andre Fox wasted no time after the timeout to sink a three-point shot with 3:27 left in the game down 54-51. After two offensive rebounds on the next drive from South, Fox sunk another three-pointer to tie the game with 2:18 minutes left in the game. South’s defense stayed strong as they forced another missed shot from the Bobcats. Fox added two more points in the paint to take the lead back with 1:06 minutes left in the game up 56-54. After a forced three-point shot by the Bobcats, Fox grabbed the defensive rebound where he was immediately fouled. Fox continued to have ice in his veins as he hit two free throws with 16 seconds left up to put South Alabama up 58-54 thus clinching the game.
The last timeout was huge for the Jaguars and especially for Andre Fox, who scored the last 10 points of the game. Fox finished with 12 points with 10 of them coming in the last three minutes and 27 seconds in the game. Lott led the team with 16 points by shooting 8-for-14 from the field and also accumulated three steals. Mitchell accounted for 14 points by shooting 6-for-11 and led the team in rebounds with 12 and assists with three. Forward/center Josh Ajayi, who is still not 100% in terms of his recent injuries, was stout in defending the paint.
The Jaguars shot 44.6% (25-for-56) from the court while shooting a low three-point shooting of 14.3% (2-for-14) against a highly efficient Bobcats defense. The Jaguars’ defense held the Bobcats to shooting 42.9% (21-for-49) from the field and 27.3% shooting (6-for-22) from the three-point line. South Alabama outscored Texas State 36-30 for points in the paint.
This was the eighth win in a row for the South Alabama Jaguars. This win secured them as the second seed for the 2020 Sun Belt Conference Championship Tournament. This late-season push comes after the Jaguars’ rough start to the season. Since Christmas, the Jaguars have been 13-5 with all of them being conference wins.
After the game, Andre Fox was asked about the comeback in the game and the season, he responded, “We knew we had the potential, we just had to come together and put it all together.” Trhae Mitchell said after the game, “we tried to leave it all on the court tonight being senior night.” He was highly complimentary of the home crowd that was as loud as it was since the one-point defeat to the #22 Auburn Tigers on November 12th. Mitchell finished the press conference by saying, “We feel like we’re the best, nobody wants to face us.”
Head coach Richie Riley said after the game, “we’ve talked about nights like these.” This was a game where the team came together and beat one of the top-tier conference teams to get one step closer towards their goal. This game was especially significant for being senior night for the Jags. Coach Riley said, “I can’t be happier for our seniors, they’ve been through so much.”
The South Alabama Jaguars will benefit from the extra days of rest due to their high seeding in the conference championship tournament. The Jaguars will need the rest to heal on potential injuries on players forward/center Josh Ajayi.
South Alabama will play in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Tournament in the semi-final game in a potential rematch against the #3 seeded Texas State or against #6 Appalachian State, #7 UT-Arlington, or #10 Coastal Carolina. The Jaguars are two games away from appearing in their ninth NCAA Tournament. They are not worried about that right now as they are looking for their sixth Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship and the first since 2006.