Texas State men’s basketball will host their first-ever Sun Belt Conference Tournament game at 7 p.m. on Wednesday as they face No. 6 Appalachian State to fight for a spot to New Orleans for the semifinals.
After winning eight out of the last 10 games and rising to the No. 3 seed in the tournament, the Bobcats rode a wave of momentum to close the regular season.
Despite a historic rise and the first back-to-back 20-win seasons since the 1977-1978 and 1978-1979 season, Texas State lost the chance at grabbing the second seed in the conference to South Alabama with a 58-54 loss to finish the regular season. Mason Harrell led the way offensively on 13 points and an efficient 5-6 shooting night, while star senior guard Nijal Pearson went cold in the game, going 3-14 from the field and 1-10 from three.
According to Head Coach Danny Kaspar, the loss did not properly show the ‘Cats’ tough performance.
“They had four guys in double digits scoring,” Kaspar said. “So, you know it was a game where we thought that we would have to scratch and claw and fight hard. We did, we fought. We had a six-point lead with 3:20 to go and we didn’t score again and they scored 10 and beat us by four.”
The tooth-and-nail South Alabama loss does not reflect Texas State or Pearson’s historic season, however. Wednesday’s game will come a week after Pearson was named Texas State’s first Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. Pearson, who was also named to the First Team All-Sun Belt team, achieved the award after leading the league in scoring and taking Texas State to the third seed in the conference with a 20-11 (13-7 Sun Belt) record.
This year saw many milestones for Pearson as he reached the program’s all-time leading scorer in January, became the first Bobcat to score 500 points for three consecutive seasons in February and became a father to his baby girl this season.
Head Coach Danny Kaspar said that he was proud of Pearson and emphasized the significance of this accomplishment for both himself and the Texas State community.
“We’re very happy for Nijal. He’s worked very hard to earn that award,” Kaspar said. “He’s been the backbone of our team. He’s been a captain for three years. He’s gone from Third Team All-Conference as a sophomore, to First Team All-Conference last year, to Player of the Year.”
Texas State received a few extra days of rest as they get a double-bye to the quarter-finals of the tournament on Wednesday.
Kaspar said despite not having a bye until the semifinal round, there is a silver lining to playing an extra game.
“I’ve been on both sides of the coin where a team that’s been sitting out for quite a while doesn’t look good,” Kaspar said. “It just really depends on players on your team. Are they ready to play?”
Stakes are high as they face the Mountaineers in the single-elimination quarterfinals on Wednesday. Texas State saw a chance to face rivals University of Texas-Arlington in the quarterfinals, but a buzzer-beating upset by No. 9 Coastal Carolina changed the game as the Chanticleers beat UTA to face App State. The Mountaineers prevailed with a 70-65 win on Monday, meaning that Texas State will battle App State for the first time since losing 60-57 to the Mountaineers in February.
The ‘Cats were without Pearson in the last matchup as he expected the birth of his baby girl. The last time App State saw Pearson, Texas State pulled through with a decisive 82-57 win over the Mountaineers.
While App State’s scoring defense ranks second in the Sun Belt, Texas State sits at first with 1,990 total points. The Bobcats also top the conference in scoring margin and free-throw percentage, and are second in field goal percentage.
The Bobcats are outranked in defensive rebounding percentage and will need to watch against junior Justin Forrest, who is second behind Pearson in scoring in the conference. App State’s Isaac Johnson ranks second in the Sun Belt in rebounding, meaning Texas State will need to overcome their sometimes-lacking rebounding and be first to the ball.
Wednesday’s game will be a White-Out game and the first 3,000 fans will receive a free t-shirt upon arrival.
Kaspar mentioned the advantage a strong home crowd brings to a team.
“When fans come to the game and cheer us on and are very supportive, it really raises our adrenaline level and it makes us play harder,” Kaspar said. “Having your fans come out and cheer you on and make a lot of noise I think is very important to us winning the game.”
If the Bobcats come out on top, it’s anyone’s game in the semifinals as Texas State squares off with South Alabama in New Orleans on Friday and perhaps a conference championship on Sunday with a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.