KATY, Texas – Senior Josh Nzeakor came through with 25 points and 13 rebounds to guide Lamar University to a thrilling 81-79 victory over No. 8 seed Houston Baptist Wednesday evening at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas. The victory was LU’s 20th of the season and extends Big Red’s season to the tournament’s second round.
In addition to picking up their 20th win of the season, the Cardinals also extended their Southland leading win streak to nine games. Wednesday’s contest was a match up of the top two scoring, rebounding and shooting teams in the Southland, but the Red and White walked away with better numbers in all three categories.
The Cardinals shot nearly 49 percent from the field, despite converting just 4-of-15 (.267) three-point attempts. Unlike the first meeting in Houston, the Cardinals got the job done from the free throw line Wednesday converting 17-of-22 (.773) attempts. Big Red also dominated the glass recording a 43-28 advantage.
Nzeakor was one of four Cardinals to score in double figures. He was joined by junior Jordan Hunter who added 18 points on 7-of-12 (.583) attempts, including two three pointers. Senior Nick Garth and junior Edwin Jeudy each chipped in 10. Jeudy just missed a double-double with eight rebounds.
The Huskies finished the night shooting 25-of-57 (.439) from the field, including seven three-pointers. HBU also had four players in double digits led by Jalon Gates who came off the bench to score 19 (15 of those coming in the second half).
“Houston Baptist came out really strong tonight and landed seven good punches,” said LU head coach Tic Price. “I thought they were very scrappy, but I’m very proud of how our kids didn’t quit and fought back. This is what tournament play is all about. It’s about survive and advance.”
The Huskies scored the game’s first five points and held LU scoreless until the 16:47 mark. Nzeakor finally got the Cardinals on the scoreboard with a tough basket in traffic. The Huskies were able to maintain their slim early lead due to three early Cardinal turnovers.
After a 3-of-5 start, the Huskies began to cool off hitting just 2 of their next 10 attempts. The Cardinals took advantage as junior Edwin Jeudy handed LU its first lead of the game. His basket at the 11:17 mark of the half gave the Cards a 12-11 lead. The basket was part of a 12-4 run as the Cardinals turned a deficit into a four-point advantage.
The game was close throughout the first half as the largest lead for either team was five points. Houston Baptist moved back out in front by three but the Cardinals responded by going back to the boards. After a missed Davion Buster three, Nzeakor got the rebound and put back. Nzeakor made a similar play on the other end of the floor after an HBU miss, the Mesquite native continued to bat the ball in the air until he could gain control – his rebound led to a basket on the other end which turned a four-point deficit into a one-point lead.
“During our scout, we thought we had identified a soft spot in their defense and we tried to take advantage of it,” said Price. “At the end of the day we had four players in double figures and you will take that every night. Josh really had a huge game for us when we really needed it. He came up with big baskets and extended possessions with his work on the boards.”
After a slow start to the half, the Cardinals finished the opening 20 minutes shooting better than 40 percent from the field but never found the range from long distance. Big Red was 0-7 from the field in the opening half.
The Cardinals took HBU to task on the glass outrebounding the Huskies, 27-13, in the first 20 minutes but held a slim 5-0 lead in second chance points.
After a quick start, the Huskies cooled off late in the half shooting just 12-of-31 (.387) from the floor. HBU did an excellent job of not giving the Cards extra possessions in the opening half committing just three. Despite LU’s first-half struggles, it managed to take a one-point lead into the locker room, 33-32.
The Cardinals had a much different start to the second half opening on an 11-4 run to build their largest lead of the game, 44-36. The run was capped by a Hunter three at the 17:03 mark – Big Red’s first triple of the game – to force an HBU timeout. The Huskies responded with a 5-0 to trim the lead down to four, but the Cardinals never backed off the pressure.
The Cardinals responded with another run which was sparked by another three. The Red and White built their lead to nine points which was the its largest of the game. Nzeakor pushed that lead to 10 points with consecutive free throws with less than 11 to play.
After HBU had trimmed the deficit down to seven points on a Jalon Gates three-pointer, the Huskies got the ball back but a drive to the basket was thwarted by Hunter who got the block, rebound and basket at the other end of the floor. Hunter completed the three-point play to give LU back a double-digit lead on his 10th point of the half.
The Huskies didn’t allow LU to get any further ahead rattling off an 11-3 run to cut the deficit down to two, 66-64. HBU’s run was sparked by two Gates three balls. After the Cards pushed the lead back to four on a Garth basket in transition, Gates was fouled on a three and hit all three free throw attempts to pull LU within one, 70-69.
After a Huskies’ basket to cut the LU lead down to one, the in-bound pass was batted up in the air and reflexively caught by Hunter while he was standing out of bounds. The ball went back to HBU and Gates was fouled on the in-bound pass. He responded by hitting both attempts to give HBU back a one-point lead.
The game was tied at 77 with less than a minute to play and HBU had the ball. The Cardinals caught a break when Ian Dubose rushed a long three attempt – with 15 seconds on the shot clock – and the Cardinals got the rebound. LU respond by getting the ball in the hands of Hunter who drove to the basket catching the attention of the defense, before dishing the ball off to Nzeakor. LU’s all-conference forward finished the play by scoring the basket and getting fouled. Nzeakor converted the three-point play to give LU an 80-77 lead with 3.3 seconds to play.
Nzeakor fouled out on the ensuing possession but it was to put UCA at the free throw line to shoot two with 1.3 remaining. Jackson Stent went to the free throw line and hit the first. He intended to miss the second but the ball went through the cylinder giving the Cards back the ball. LU closed out the scoring with a Garth free throw.
“There is no time to celebrate,” said Price. “We have to get back to the room and get our guys off their feet. We still have a lot of work to do. This was just one win – a step in the process – but there is only one goal come tournament time.”
The Cardinals return to action Thursday to take on No. 4 seed New Orleans in the second round of the tournament. The game will tip off from the Merrell Center at 5 p.m. It can also be heard live on Newstalk 560 KLVI, and it will be streamed live on ESPN+.
Tickets for the Cardinals’ second-round game can be purchased at the Merrell Center by going to the LU Ticket kiosk located at the entrance to the building. The ticket office will be open beginning at 3:30 p.m.