Cowboys’ season ends, McNeese a toe away from forcing overtime
Jim Gazzolo, Special for the American Press
McNeese State went from last to first, and not in a good way.
A year ago the Cowboys were the last team to lose in the Southland Conference Tournament, falling to Lamar just before the college basketball season was shut down.
On Tuesday, they were the first to get the boot.
Southeastern Louisiana and Gus Okafor did the Cowboys in this time, ending their season 71-68 at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas.
The Lions (8-17) move on to play New Orleans tonight in the second round.
The Cowboys (10-14) limped into the postseason by losing three of their last four regular-season games, one year after looking like a program on the rise with a ton of momentum.
“It was a really, really hard year,” said McNeese head coach Heath Schroyer. “I’m proud or our guys. We could have lost by 24 when we got down by 15 with seven minutes left, but we fought and had a chance to win.”
Chris Orlin thought he had at least tied the score with 13.1 seconds left with a 3-pointer, but his foot was ruled on the line and the Cowboys trailed 67-66. Replays showed it was the correct call.
Two Keon Clergeot free throws put the lead back up to three.
McNeese then messed up, getting a two-point shot from Carlos Rosario and bypassing a 3 attempt with 2.4 seconds left. An Okafor dunk ended the Cowboys’ season as A.J. Lawson’s desperation heave at the buzzer was way off.
“If Chris’ foot is a half inch shorter we are likely in overtime,” Schroyer said.
For SLU head coach David Kiefer, it was a moment of concern.
“As soon as the officials went over to check the monitor I took a look and saw his toe was touching the line,” Kiefer said. “Either way we were prepared to take the last shot.”
It was much the same way the entire season went for the Cowboys, who dug themselves out of a big hole only to come up short.
“A microcosm of our year,” Schroyer said. “We played really well at times but we ran out of gas.”
Twenty turnovers leading to 25 Lions points didn’t help either, nor did giving up 38 points in the paint.
Okafor, though, was the big difference, finishing with 26 points, tying his career high that he set when the teams first met in January. His two 3-pointers in the space of 72 seconds fueled a 12-0 Lions run with just over 7:43 remaining.
“He is a really tough matchup for us,” Schroyer said. “He can step out and hit the 3, he can take you to the basket and he can pass.”
That run gave Southeastern a 63-48 lead and began the countdown to the Cowboys’ season.
That’s when McNeese came back, though, scoring the next 12 points to cut the Lamar lead to three with 2:11 left on Orlin’s 15-foot jumper.
“We believed we could get back in it,” Rosario said.
Rosario led the Cowboys with 18 points, finishing with double digits in each of the last six games. Lawson added 12.
Both teams shot the ball poorly in the first half, but a 9-0 run gave McNeese a 31-27 lead with just over a minute remaining before the break. Two quick buckets by the Lions evened the score at intermission.
“What these kids have been through this year, not one of them opted out and not one of them quit,” Schroyer said. “That says something about them.”