Nzeakor lifts No. 5 Lamar over No. 8 Houston Baptist with late and-one

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Cardinals secure second-round matchup against No. 4 New Orleans

KATY, TX – With overtime looming, Lamar guard Jordan Hunter delivered perhaps his most important pass of the season, giving the Cardinals at least one more night at Merrell Center.

Hunter found a wide-open Josh Nzeakor for the go-ahead basket with 3.3 seconds left that pushed No. 5 Lamar past No. 8 Houston Baptist 81-79 in the opening game of the Southland Conference’s Basketball Tournament on Wednesday evening. The victory earned the Cardinals (20-12) a Thursday afternoon date against No. 4 New Orleans at 5 p.m. CT.

“Coach (Tic Price) trusted me with the ball,” said Hunter, who finished with 18 points and four assists. “He told me to make the play to go win us the game. When I came off the screen, I saw Josh’s man come up, so I redirected the screen. When I drove, his man came up, so I dished it to him.”

Nzeakor did the rest, hitting a short jumper and the ensuing free throw to give the Cardinals an 80-77 lead. The Second-Team All-Southland Conference post finished the night with 25 points and 13 rebounds as he helped pick up the slack on an off night from first-team all-conference guard Nick Garth.

Jackson Stent hit two free throws to push the Huskies (12-18) within 80-79 but Garth hit a free throw with a second left to secure the win.

The loss proved tough for HBU, which trailed by 13 with 7:24 remaining before making a spirited run that saw them take a 77-76 lead on Jalon Gates’ free throw with 1:01 left.

With the victory, the Cardinals, who have now won nine-straight games, recorded their first 20-win season since 2011-12, also extending a stretch that has seen them score at least 75 points in 11 of their last 12.

Neither team held more than a five-point lead in a first half that saw the Cardinals cling to a 33-32 lead at intermission.

With Garth on the bench with foul trouble for much of the first half, Nzeakor picked up the slack, scoring 11 points to go along with eight boards to pace the Cardinals’ offense.

Like Lamar, HBU had its leading scorer on the bench for much of the opening 20 minutes as Ian DuBose picked up two quick fouls and was scoreless in the eight minutes he was on the court. The sophomore guard was held without a field goal and had just five points on the evening.

“We picked up on our scouting that he liked to go right, so we started playing his right hand and tried to force him to go to his left,” said Price of DuBose, who had just 13 points in his last two meetings against Lamar after scoring 33 in an 88-82 overtime win over the Cardinals on January 2.

Statistically, Lamar held a decisive edge for most of the first half, especially on the glass. The Cardinals outrebounded the Huskies by a 27-13 margin, including a 7-1 margin on the offensive end, but the Cards’ error-prone ways — combined with the quick hands of Bonds — resulted in Lamar committing eight turnovers that turned into 10 points for HBU.

The Cardinals also struggled from beyond the arc, missing all seven of their 3-point attempts in the first half. Lamar hit just four of their 15 long range shots, a far cry from the 17 they hit against the Huskies in their 110-75 victory on February 27.

“Our guys really fought hard,” said HBU coach Ron Cottrell. “The other side of the coin was that we weren’t able to create tempo, and that’s a credit to them.”

Added Cottrell, “I think Lamar may be our most balanced team in our league.”

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