The Port Arthur News
BEAUMONT — Moral victories don’t count for much when you’ve been camping out in the Southland Conference cellar from day one, so the best news Saturday night for a Lamar basketball team listing worse than the Carnival Triumph is that only six games remain in a season which will be little noted nor long remembered.
On an evening when the banner for LU’s Southland Conference tournament championship last spring was draped from the Montagne Center rafters, Pat Knight’s Cardinals created false hope by battling back from an 18-point deficit. But, after a Hondo Webb putback forged a 60-60 deadlock with 2:23 left, they saw McNeese State reel off nine consecutive points to post a 69-62 victory.
“We played hard, we just didn’t make the plays at the end,” said LU coach Pat Knight. “There was a lot of positives in the way we came back, but it’s still a loss. It’s so hard to come back from 18 points down.”
With the loss, Lamar dropped to 1-12 in SLC play and 3-22 overall, and saw its long-shot chances of claiming the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament all but expire. McNeese (4-9, 10-13) now holds a three-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Cardinals by virtue of sweeping the season series. Central Arkansas, at 4-10, is the next closest team.
Lamar, down 32-14 with 6:20 left in the opening period, and trailing 50-34 with 13-50 to play, fought back by turning up the defensive pressure, cutting down turnovers and getting strong second-half offensive efforts from redshirt freshman Rhon Mitchell and senior Donley Minor.
Mitchell scored 12 of his 18 points after the break and Minor tallied 13 of his 14. Mitchell delivered six consecutive points as Lamar forged it first tie at 58. Webb’s only bucket of the evening tied it again at 60, then the Cardinals played the final 2:23 exactly the way you would expect a 3-22 team to play. A turnover and three consecutive missed shots opened the door for the Cowboys.
McNeese, to its credit, was near flawless at crunch time. After the tie at 60, the visitors from Lake Charles scored on their final five possessions of the game. A putback by Kevin Hardy made it 62-60, 1-of-2 free throws by Desharick Guidry nudged the lead to 63-60, a well-guarded Dontae Cannon hit a tough jumper, Guidry added two more free throws and Jeremie Mitchell swished a pair of freebies.
Before you could say “here we go again,” the Cowboys were up 69-60 and it was time to turn out the lights.
“We didn’t make the plays at the end and they did,” Knight said. “We had a critical turnover late.”
The final margin of victory turned out to be the seven-point hole Lamar’s starters were in when they entered the game. Knight started five bench players and the result was four turnovers and a 9-2 deficit in the opening 4:11. It got worse before it got better after the starters entered, as McNeese pulled out to 23-5 in the next 4:37.
Ultimately, the difference in the game came at the three-point line. McNeese, which shot only 37.5 percent overall on 24-of-64, made 8-of-17 behind the arc. Jeremie Mitchell led the way by sinking 4-of-6 bonus buckets on the way to 17 points. Lamar, which has made only 45 treys all season, was 1-of-5.
Among the positives for Lamar were 11 rebounds from Nikko Acosta, 48 percent shooting in the second half (14-of-29) and domination of the paint to the tune of 35-24. Also, after being down 12-4 on the boards early, the Cardinals fought back to a 36-36 draw. And, after turning the ball over 12 times in the first 15 minutes, they gave it away only three times in the final 25 minutes.
Too little too late, though, and now Knight has the dubious distinction of losing more games in one season than any coach in LU history. And there are still five games left.