KATY, Tx. – For a moment, Southeastern Louisiana looked like a team ready to give away its season yet found the mettle to keep them at Merrell Center for at least another evening.
Gus Okafor’s dunk with .8 seconds left proved to be the clinching basket for the eighth-seeded Lions to hold off ninth-seed McNeese 71-68 in a first-round game of the 2021 Hercules Tires Southland Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament on Tuesday night.
Southeastern Louisiana (8-17) advances to Wednesday’s game against No. 5 New Orleans, which tips off at 5 p.m. CT.
“This was about which team could make the most plays,” said Southeastern Louisiana coach David Keifer.
The Lions led by 15 points with 7:43 remaining but an inspired run from the Cowboys (10-14) brought them within 65-64 on a Carlos Rosario basket with 1:02 left. After Keon Clergeot’s jumper extended Southeastern Louisiana’s lead back to three, McNeese appeared to have tied the game when Chris Orlina knocked down a jumper from the top of the key with 13 seconds on the clock. However, the replay showed that Orlina’s foot was inches over the line, turning it into a two-pointer and a 67-66 deficit.
“His toe looked like it just grazed it,” said Keifer, who was able to get close enough to see the replay.
Following a pair of free throws from Clergeot, McNeese’s Carlos Rosario’s layup trimmed the Cowboys’ deficit to one, but on the ensuing inbounds, Okafor got behind the McNeese defense and slammed home the last of his game-high 26 points to seal the deal.
“Being down 15 and still having a chance to win tells you all you need to know about the character of this team,” said McNeese coach Heath Schroyer.
The Lions used their ability to create second chances and force turnovers to begin pulling away from the Cowboys early in the second half, outscoring McNeese 13-4 out of the gate to take a 44-35 lead at the 14:13 mark. Okafor had a steal and two rebounds during the run, which he capped off with a layup off a Clergeot miss.
McNeese was just 2-of-10 from the field to open the second half and committed five turnovers in the first seven minutes after intermission.
However, the Cowboys began to find their mark. Consecutive treys from Harwin Francois helped ignite a rally that saw them close within 47-45 with 11:36 left, but Southeastern Louisiana’s defense allowed them to withstand the run as they cooled off McNeese.
A pair of forced turnovers keyed a 12-3 run that saw Clergeot and Okafor each knockdown three-pointers while a conventional three-point play from Isiah Kirby swelled the Lions’ lead to 60-48 with 8:02 remaining. Okafor then delivered a what then looked like a backbreaking triple that gave Southeastern Louisiana a 63-48 edge.
McNeese dominated on the glass for much of the first half, but a slew of turnovers (10) offset the Cowboys’ edge on the glass. Southeastern Louisiana was all too willing to take advantage of the miscues, scoring 12 of their first-half points off McNeese errors.
Okafor’s layup off a Clergeot steal provided the Lions with a 27-22 lead with 3:15 before intermission before the Cowboys amassed their best collective spurt of the half. A.J. Lawson and Rosario tallied the scoring during a 9-0 run over a 53-second span that put McNeese up 29-27. An Orlina jumper extended the lead to 31-27, a lead that was erased by baskets from Caldwell and Joe Kasperzyk that tied matters at 31 at halftime.
Rosario led the Cowboys with 18 points, while Lawson added 12. Southeastern Louisiana got 13 rebounds from Nick Caldwell, who also recorded three of the Lions’ season-high 14 steals.
The Lions split the regular-season series against the Privateers, winning 79-73 at home on January 30 before losing in overtime on the road 81-76 on March 6.