Coming into the season, it appeared as if UT-San Antonio had all the pieces in place to make a repeat run for the Southland title. While point guard Devin Gibson graduated from last year's team that won an NCAA Tournament game, the last two Southland Conference Freshmen of the Year, Melvin Johnson and Jeromie Hill, were back. The coaches agreed that UTSA was the class of the conference in the preseason poll, selecting the Roadrunners to repeat as champions.
Things almost never go as planned over the course of a college basketball season, and UTSA's up and down 2011-12 was no exception. Despite a near-Red Line Upset of Oklahoma State in November during the Preseason NIT, the Roadrunners struggled through a lot of the non-conference season. They rebounded to start 6-1 in SLC play, but then won only two of their next seven league games. The rollercoaster reached another zenith for UTSA last Saturday, when they beat previous Southland undefeated UT-Arlington for their best win since taking down Oral Roberts in the same NIT pod as Oklahoma State. The win against the Mavericks' normally rampant defense saw the Roadrunners put up 1.21 points per possession.
A jittery start for both teams had McNeese up by one, 11-10, at the under 12 timeout. The Roadrunners began to show the class that defeated UTA over the next five minutes with a 13-0 run. Johnson began to take over the game with jumpers, #superhoops and drives. Defensively, the Roadrunners' 2-3 zone frustrated the Cowboys, who couldn't get SLC Player of the Year Patrick Richard involved. The Roadrunners led 30-19 at the half.
At the beginning of the second half, UTSA briefly made the lead 13 before McNeese got back into the game with an 11-1 run. The Cowboys looked like a completely different team from the one that was stymied on the offensive end and had defensive lapses. McNeese began to pass quickly and with more intent against the zone and focused on Johnson on the other end of the floor. UTSA led until the 9:22 mark when sharpshooting guard Dontae Cannon knocked down a jumper to make the score 40-39 in favor of McNeese.
The game went back and forth for the next few minutes, but it had the feeling that McNeese was poised for one more big run. The Cowboys continued to run better offense and looked livelier on defense. Johnson and Hill were still being held in check for UTSA.
With 3:57 to go and the UTSA lead five, the Cowboys made their run and led again, 57-55, after Mitchell hit a #superhoop. Two Richard free throws with 1:14 left made it a 10-2 run and a four-point lead for McNeese. Down two possessions, UTSA was forced to lengthen the game by fouling. Two sets of miss, make free throws by Rudy Turner and Richard, respectively, were countered with easy UTSA baskets to cut the margin to one at 61-60. Cannon converted two charity shots for the Cowboys and UTSA would have a shot to tie with 10 seconds left.
Stephen Franklin ran up the floor and passed to Kannon Burrage to his left. Burrage lined up and hit the #superhoop with six seconds to send the game into OT at 63 as the glum, elderly McNeese fans to my right in the upper level of the Merrell Center slumped further into their seats.
The extra period was somewhat of a microcosm of the larger 40 minutes. Johnson was influential early with five points, before the stingy perimeter defense of McNeese forced Roadrunner misses. Five straight UTSA misses in the extra session allowed McNeese to go on an 8-0 run to build a five-point lead. The Cowboys had to endure another nervy moment after Franklin sold a foul on a three-point attempt with seven seconds left, but they held on after Desherick Guidry made one of two to put McNeese up by four, 78-74, and provide the final margin. A smile appeared on the faces of the blue-clad McNeese fans.
For UTSA, the ultimate loss of the disappointing season was their last game in the Southland. Johnson, Hill, Burrage and the rest of the returning Roadrunners will play in the WAC next year. With the win, the Cowboys earned a semifinal date with UT-Arlington the next night.
MCNEESE STATE 78, TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO 74 03/07/2012
TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO 17-14 (10-6) -- J. Hill 4-9 4-10 12; M. Hale III 2-9 2-4 7; M. Johnson III 7-11 3-4 19; K. Burrage 2-8 0-0 6; S. Paye 0-2 0-0 0; I. Nujic 4-10 4-5 13; S. Franklin 5-8 2-5 12; A. Vouyoukas 1-6 3-4 5; J. Sims 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-63 18-32 74. MCNEESE STATE 16-14 (10-6) -- P. Richard 4-15 7-14 16; J. Mitchell 4-11 2-2 13; D. Cannon 4-14 10-10 18; R. Turner 2-4 3-4 7; K. Hardy 4-5 0-4 8; D. Guidry 5-7 4-8 14; A. Fields 1-4 0-0 2; D. Richard 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-61 26-42 78.
Three-point goals: UTSA 6-20 (S. Paye 0-1; M. Johnson 2-4; S. Franklin 0-1; J. Hill 0-2; I. Nujic 1-4; M. Hale III 1-4; K. Burrage 2-4), MCN 4-22 (P. Richard 1-7; J. Mitchell 3-10; D. Cannon 0-4; A. Fields 0-1); Rebounds: UTSA 36 (S. Franklin 10), MCN 47 (P. Richard 11); Assists: UTSA 12 (K. Burrage 4), MCN 12 (P. Richard 7); Total Fouls -- UTSA 26, MCN 20; Fouled Out: UTSA-J. Hill; MCN-None.