Last Modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 9:07 AM
BEAUMONT, Texas — Survive and advance is the mantra of March basketball.
McNeese State got an early start on that concept, overcoming a late Lamar rally for a vitally important 69-62 win over the Cardinals on Saturday.
McNeese (10-13, 4-9 Southland) owns a three-game lead over Lamar (3-22, 1-12) for the final spot in the conference tournament, plus a tiebreaker after sweeping the season series from the Cardinals. Both teams have five games left in conference play.
“Knowing that we’re in the same predicament fighting for a spot in the tournament, this was a big game for both of us,” said McNeese coach Dave Simmons. “This was like a championship battle. Not only are you talking about two big rivals, but it meant as much for our basketball team as theirs.”
It looked like it would be smooth sailing for the Cowboys, who led by as many as 18 in the first half thanks to hot shooting from guard Jeremie Mitchell, who drained three 3-pointers to key the quick start.
“Hitting the first couple shots, it kind of lays out the whole game for you,” Mitchell said. “You ain’t gonna be tentative every time you get open.”
Mitchell finished with 17 points, tying his season-high. It was his second game in double figures since McNeese’s Dec. 22 loss at North Carolina.
“If Jeremie does that, it opens up a lot of things for us,” Simmons said. “It gave us some cushion and the other guys fed off of it. If guys are making that open shot it makes it a lot easier from a coaching standpoint.”
Lamar, which did not play its normal starting lineup until 4 minutes passed, cut the lead to eight at halftime after going 12 of 15 from the free-throw line.
McNeese extended its lead to 50-34 before needing to buckle down for a furious finish.
The Cardinals tied the score at 58 and 60 before McNeese’s go-to players took control.
Kevin Hardy put back his own miss to put the Cowboys up 62-60, and Desharick Guidry made 1 of 2 at the line to extend it to three with 1:31 remaining.
Rhon Mitchell, who scored a game-high 18 for Lamar, missed a 2-foot bunny at the other end that Mitchell rebounded. McNeese was able to run off most of the shot clock before Dontae Cannon nailed a jumper from the foul line with 37 seconds left.
“We were just trying to keep our composure and give it to people who have been in these situations in a lot of pressure,” Mitchell said. “Just keep the ball in the hands of somebody that knows what they’re doing in those situations.”
Guidry finished with 11 points, while Cannon and Hardy added 10 each.
McNeese returns to the floor Tuesday with a home game against Southeastern Louisiana.
“I know we have a lot of doubters, but coach has us believing,” Mitchell said. “We know we’re better than our record is telling.”