KATY, Tex. — Year after year, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks always seem to be a serious threat in the Southland Conference.
After losing star forward Thomas Walkup to graduation following last season, and coach Brad Underwood to the Oklahoma State Cowboys, many thought the Lumberjacks would drop off this season.
While they looked beatable for the first time in four seasons in the conference, they were still a top-three team, and are a serious threat to win the conference tournament for the fourth year in a row. On Thursday night, they began their quest for another NCAA Tournament berth.
This time, as the three-seed, they need to win three games in as many days to reach the Big Dance. Up first, the Lumberjacks took on the Lamar Cardinals, who were coming off a win over the Southeastern Louisiana Lions on Wednesday in the First Round.
On Thursday, the well-rested Lumberjacks flexed their muscle to close out the first half, pushing their lead to double figures and never looking back.
Thanks in part to a perfect shooting night from Leon Gilmore III, Stephen F. Austin rolled to the 75-59 win over Lamar to advance to the Southland Conference tournament semifinals on Friday.
With 9:14 to play in the opening half, Christian Albright hit a three to bring Lamar back within a single point, at 21-20. Gilmore answered with a three point play on the next possession for the Lumberjacks, and Stephen F. Austin started to pull away.
The three point play from Gilmore ignited a 13-0 run that broke the game open for the Lumberjacks. TJ Holyfield hit a three ball with 6:04 on the clock to push the lead to 12 points, and Gilmore capped off the rally with a layup.
When all was said and done, the Lumberjacks held a 34-20 advantage at the end of the run, and they took a 39-25 lead into the break.
In the second half, the Lumberjacks continued to extend their lead. Lamar was never able to cut the deficit below 14 points over the final 20 minutes. A pair of free throws from Kevon Harris at the 8:20 mark gave Stephen F. Austin a 23-point lead, which was their largest of the game.
Stephen F. Austin was never seriously threatened in the second half, and they cruised to the 75-59 win over Lamar in the quarter-finals of the Southland Conference tournament.
Leon Gilmore III had himself quite the night for the Lumberjacks in the win. He scored a game-high 19 points to go along with seven rebounds. Gilmore was a perfect 7-of-7 from the field, and a perfect 4-of-4 from the free throw line.
Ivan Canete chipped in with 14 points, while TJ Holyfield added 11 points and eight rebounds.
For the second night in a row, it was a bench player who led the Cardinals in scoring. Torey Noel scored a team-high 14 points in 20 minutes of floor time off the bench in the loss.
Joey Frenchwood led all Lamar starters with 11 points.
With the win, Stephen F. Austin (18-13) advance to the semifinals on Friday, where they will take on the second-seed Texas A&M-CC Islanders. The Lumberjacks notched a pair of wins over the Islanders in the regular season.
Despite the loss, Lamar (19-14) may still have another shot at a 20-win campaign, if they receive and accept an invitation into a post-season tournament.
– T. Bennett