KATY, TX (KTRE)
The SFA men's basketball team will now look now look to play spoiler on the national stage after they beat the Texas A&M Corpus Christi Islanders 82-60 in the Southland Conference Championship Saturday night in front of a packed house at the Merrell Center in Katy.
With the win, the Lumberjacks will now move on to their third straight appearance in the NCAA Division 1 National Tournament. The team becomes the first Southland school to win three straight conference tournament titles since Louisiana-Monroe won four straight from 1990-93. The Lumberjacks will be one of 68 teams looking to survive 3 challenging weeks of basketball to be the last team left standing at Houston's NRG Stadium. To get to this point, the Jacks beat Houston Baptist 104-68 before knocking off the Islanders tonight.
Last year's run ended when the Jacks lost to the Utes of Utah in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by a score of 57-50. The prior year, SFA played the role of bracket buster when they beat Virginia Commonwealth University 77-75. The jacks would then lose to Pac12 power UCLA two days later.
"We're a better team than we were a year ago," Coach Brad Underwood said. "I don't know if that will show in the seeding. I know one thing that happened with us, is that no one wanted to play us in the regular season. That's probably why our seed will be a little bit lower, but I hope not. This team is by far our best team. This team is very good. We're going to go there. We're not going to be afraid of the moment. We're going to approach Monday's practice just like we do every day and we're going to show up to work. We're going to figure out who that opponent is. That's what this team does. That's what this group of guys does. That's what our locker room does. It's one game at a time and that's the way we're going to approach it."
With the win, the SFA Jacks close out a perfect undefeated conference record this year. The last time the Jacks have lost a conference game was Feb.14, 2015 when they fell to the Islanders 71-63 in Corpus Christi.
"It speaks volumes of these seniors. In particular, you look at Thomas Walkup and Trey Pinkney, the success they've had with this program and the success they've had at home," Underwood said. "They lost one home game, and I'm responsible for that. We lost the 24-hours of basketball game. There's not enough words. You look at the attendance tonight and that was a lot of purple in there. I think that speaks volumes to the success that this program has had. The fans buy-in to these players and vice versa. We've got extremely high-character kids. To see this place packed with purple and it doesn't matter where we go on the road, we bring a lot of people. I think it's huge. It will impact the basketball program and us in recruiting. There's nothing greater than Selection Sunday. I'm an old school guy; when they call your name the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I get goose bumps. It is something we will never ever take for granted. For these guys to be able to do that three times is so special. These guys have laid an unbelievable foundation for our program is about."
"This is what we talk about when we recruit them," Underwood said. "They have been working in the weight room since June 6. The culmination is this. That's what you grew up playing for in your back yard, moments like this with the most on the line."
If SFA wants to advance further they will need to rely on Southland Conference Player of the Year, Senior Thomas Walkup. Walkup has been rested several games in conference play due to commanding leads the Jacks have taken. Walkup said he is rested and ready for the challenge.
"That's not something you take for granted," Walkup said. "I think in about 10-15 years, I'll look back and realize how special it is. Right now, it's all about us making the tournament as a team. I'm happy to help."
SFA will learn who they play in the national tournament at 4:30 p.m. On Sunday. SFA could end up playing as close as Oklahoma City in the second round. The NCAA Tournament starts March 15.