Texas State men’s basketball (18-6 overall, 12-3 Sun Belt) defeated the University of Louisiana at Monroe 58-49 on Feb. 26 to clinch its first-ever Sun Belt Conference title.
This is Texas State's third-ever regular season title and its first since 1999, when it was in the Southland Conference.
Texas State was without Interim Head Coach Terrence “TJ” Johnson for the second of three straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. In his place, Associate Head Coach Bennie Seltzer was at the helm and, after the game, shared some words on Johnson’s behalf.
“I just want to say how proud Coach Johnson is of this team,” Seltzer says. “All the things that they’ve gone through this past year has been unprecedented, to say the least. These young men were never wavering on how hard they worked, how close they were and how connected they were. It was such a pleasure to be around these guys, to coach these guys. Every single day they brought it.”
Seltzer believes the group's unity and perseverance through adversity are what allowed them to arrive at this point.
“They come together at the end of every practice, and our break is ‘family’ and those guys live by those words every single day,” Seltzer says. “It doesn’t surprise me that they were able to finish it off [and win the regular-season title], but goodness they’ve gone through a lot and we are really, really excited for them because they’ve worked really hard.”
The Bobcats set the tone early in the first half, going on a 10-0 run led by junior forward Alonzo Sule with six points in the first five minutes of action. ULM stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer from senior guard Josh Nichols at the 15:14 mark.
Texas State pushed its lead back up to double-digits at 18-7 and kept the Warhawks at arm’s length for the rest of the period.
Following a media timeout, ULM scared the Bobcats with a 7-2 run to close the deficit to just four points at 24-20 with 4:55 left in the half. Texas State responded with a 6-1 run to close out the half and lead 30-21 going into the break.
The Bobcats outplayed the Warhawks in nearly every category in the first half. Texas State held a 17-11 advantage on the boards, including a 6-1 advantage on offensive rebounds. The Bobcats outshot ULM from the field, shooting 44.8% (13-29) compared to the Warhawks’ 38.9% (7-18). The Bobcats forced eight turnovers leading to 10 points while only committing four turnovers of their own.
Sule led all scorers at halftime with eight points (3-5 FG, 2-2 FT) along with four rebounds and a steal. Junior guard Mason Harrell (3-7 FG, 0-3 3FG) and senior guard Shelby Adams (3-5 FGS) each chipped in six points.
For ULM, senior guard Marco Morency had seven points (3-5 FG, 1-1 FT) and two rebounds. Following Morency were junior guard Elijah Gonzales (1-1 FG, 2-2 FT) and junior guard Koreem Ozier (2-5 FG) with four points.
The Warhawks started the second half with two quick buckets to come within five points before Texas State responded with a three by Harrell and a three by junior guard Caleb Asberry in back-to-back possessions.
The Bobcats increased their lead to a game-high 18 points at 44-26 and seemed poised to cruise to the finish line, but ULM had one last run left in it, going on a 16-3 run to close the score to just 47-42 with 7:06 remaining in the game.
Texas State weathered the storm and two free throws from senior forward Isiah Small sealed the 58-49 win and regular-season title for the Bobcats.
After only scoring four points in the first half, Small scored 13 in the second for a game-high 17 points (5-7 FG, 1-2 3FG, 6-7 FT) and seven rebounds. Harrell ended the game with 11 points (5-10 FG, 1-5 3FG), four rebounds, two steals and a block. Sule finished with 10 points (4-7 FG, 2-2 FT), six rebounds and a steal.
Morency finished with a team-high 13 points (6-12 FG, 1-3 3FG) for ULM along with four steals. Nichols scored seven in the second half for a total of 10 points (3-8 FG, 2-4 3FG, 2-2 FT).
After the game, the team celebrated its accomplishment — pouring water on one another, embracing their teammates and cutting down a piece of the net as a memento of their accomplishment. The players made sure to include Johnson in the occasion, calling their coach on FaceTime to celebrate with him in whatever way they could.
Johnson then made a surprise appearance after the game, limited to the confines of his Jeep, to celebrate with the team.
“[Johnson] has been a part of this the entire time,” Seltzer says. “The culture that he has created here… he has improved the culture here and that’s what won this game tonight — the culture that he has put in place.”
When asked what pushed this team over the hill, Seltzer’s answer was simple — “TJ.”
“For one, he treats them like men,” Seltzer says. “He holds them accountable, and they believe in him. They believe in him because he believes in them. I think the connection he has with his team allowed these guys to do what they did tonight.”
The win was not only sweet for the coaching staff but also the players. Adams saw the victory as validation.
“It’s a long time coming,” Adams says. “I’ve been here since I was a freshman, been through all the trials and tribulations, and getting this win tonight is for sure heartfelt. I’m so happy just to see all this hard work, work out. This feeling I can’t explain.”
Senior forward Quentin Scott has seen the Bobcats come close to a title several times during his time at Texas State and says that a weight has been lifted off his shoulders.
“I’m lost for words right now,” Scott says. “I feel like the four years we put in here has finally paid off. It’s a blessing honestly, just relieved.”
After the celebrations, Texas State returned to play ULM again on Feb. 27. This time around, the Bobcats sat Harrell for the game, while also limiting Small's and Adams’ minutes to rest for the upcoming Sun Belt Conference Tournament. Johnson was also not present for this contest.
Despite the change in the lineups and yet another game without their head coach at the helm, the Bobcats still managed to squeak out a 61-57 nail-biting victory.
Asberry led the team with 19 points (4-11 FG, 3-5 3FG, 8-8 FT) with seven rebounds. Players, such as junior forward Nighael Ceasar, sophomore forward Addison Wallace and freshman guard Duece Guidry also picked up the slack.
Caesar scored four of his eight points (3-5 FG, 2-3 FT) in the final minute of the game. Wallace turned in four points (2-2 FG) and tied for a team-high seven rebounds. Guidry, in his second game of the season, scored six points (2-4 FG, 2-3 3FG) in the first half.
Seltzer was pleased with how the team came together to win the game despite Johnson's absence along with the adjustments to the lineup.
“I thought our guys played well and competed especially with the circumstances," Seltzer says. "I thought, collectively, one through 14 [players] all brought something to the table today. That was a complete, complete team win by our guys, and I’m really happy for them.”
This season has been a roller coaster for the Bobcats. Before the season, former Head Coach Danny Kaspar was accused of racism by a former player and as a result, later resigned. COVID-19 has altered the way not only the game is played, but the way the players and coaches have lived their lives.
Through it all, both Scott and Adams have come away with lessons they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
“I think I learned you can’t take anything for granted,” Adams says. “You could think we’re gonna play next week, so I don’t really need to go hard tonight. But then later on the game could be canceled. Not everything is certain. You just can’t take anything for granted.”
Scott echoed Adams but also says that he learned about preparation.
“I think one of the biggest things we learned is to remain humble, never underestimate anybody, and be ready at all times,” Scott says. “[With Johnson out], Bennie was ready to step up. Coach TJ definitely still made sure our preparation was there, but we were very prepared even though we were in very unwanted circumstances. We were very resilient this year.”
Texas State will set its sights on the Sun Belt Conference tournament from March 5-8 in Pensacola, Florida. As the first seed in the West Division, the Bobcats will get a bye in the first round.
Texas State will play the winner of the game between Appalachian State University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament at 8 p.m. on March. 6. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.