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(Special to the American Press)<br>

(Special to the American Press)

Gazzolo: SLC title not in cards for Lamar or Cowboys

Last Modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 9:11 AM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

BEAUMONT, Texas — Like father, like son.

Taking a page right out of his old man’s playbook, Pat Knight sent a message to his Lamar basketball team.

This one was much more subtle than a year ago, when Knight lambasted his squad in a postgame news conference, especially throwing his seniors under the bus.

That group responded, rallying to win the Southland Conference championship and make the NCAA tournament, proving Knight either a genius or fortunate.

Ironically, the Cardinals beat McNeese in the title game during last year’s run, the same team they faced Saturday.

That makes it hard to believe it was just a coincidence that when the two teams met here, the Cardinals decided to hand out their championship rings and hang their banner with the Cowboys in their house.

“I think it is a rivalry and we do those things with rivals,” said Knight.

But there was no mistake that when the starting lineups were announced, Knight was following in the footsteps of his legendary dad Bobby.

The Lamar coach started five bench players against the Cowboys, like his dad had done a few times himself.

Maybe he had nothing to lose, after all Lamar entered with just one league win this season and two games behind McNeese for the final spot in the Southland tournament.

McNeese all but wrapped up a spot in the eight-team Southland gala with a 69-62 victory. While with only four wins themselves, it hardly has been a great season for the Cowboys, but at least they swept their rivals from Beaumont and made sure they would not repeat as champions.

“I don’t want to say it is over until it is mathematically done, but this one hurt,” said Knight.

Clearly, Knight was trying to catch lighting in a bottle Saturday. Meanwhile, McNeese is just trying to weather a storm that has been brewing since Christmas.

After a surprising fast start that had hopes rising, the young Cowboys have suffered from a case of reality. And, despite the fact that only one team from the Southland that is eligible can’t make the tourney, McNeese’s hopes were still in the balance heading into Beaumont.

It made for a little extra drama between rivals in a game that clearly showed why neither team can be considered contenders for any crown. So did the ceremony.

“I think it is just a Lamar-McNeese thing,” Knight said of the timing of the celebration. “You know you are going to have a big crowd, you know there is a lot of interest in the game, so it makes sense.”

As for his early benching, well he was trying to make a point.

“You just can’t show up, go through the motions and be rewarded,” Knight said. “I thought the other guys deserved to start.”

As for Knight’s try at waking up his club, the new starters were outscored 9-2 in the opening 4 minutes. And the bench, or old starters, they responded by getting outscored 14-3 over the next five.

“Obviously, that coaching move didn’t work,” he said. “It put us in a hole.”

When you have but one win in league and have three overall, not much is going to work.

Then again, everything didn’t go great for McNeese despite the win.

The Cowboys blew an 18-point lead early and a 16-point second-half lead, looking as if they wanted nothing to do with a berth in the SLC tourney as well. Lamar tied the score not once but twice down the stretch.

A game that should have been over by halftime was suddenly up for grabs in the closing moments. It shows why the Cowboys were still worried about making the tournament heading into last night’s game.

They have often looked opportunity straight in the eyes and blinked.

Now, they are down to the final games of the season, ones that can still go a long way in deciding just how they enter the SLC tourney and in what position.

As hard as it is to believe, the Cowboys could still end up as high as the sixth seed. They would need a run like the one Lamar went on last year to do so.

Then again, they are not officially in either.

That leaves us with a big question: Just where are the Cowboys heading down the stretch?

It seems hard to really get a feel for this club, hard to understand if it is coming or going.

One thing is likely after the win at Lamar: McNeese is going to the Southland tournament. But the Cowboys better play a lot better over a 40-minute period then they did Saturday or they will be coming home sooner then they hope.

As for Knight’s team, they seem to be right back at the beginning.

Fact is, both clubs are a long way for that day last year in Katy, Texas, where they played for the Southland crown and a trip to the NCAA.

A long way away.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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