Editor’s Note: Cover image by Mike Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- Behind home-court advantage and 28 points from point guard Josiah Johnson, the UMHB men’s basketball team earned a win in its first conference game of the season, defeating Louisiana College, 74-71, on Thursday.
Fast-paced play set the speed of the game from the opening tip until the final buzzer, with Louisiana College putting on a half-court press and starting the game outscoring the Cru 13-5. Kae’ron Baker, the Wildcats’ dynamic point guard, was LC’s heartbeat all evening, though he was kept quiet by a spectacular defensive effort from UMHB in the second half, and held to just nine second-half points. Though the Wildcats had control early, the Crusaders found themselves right back in it, as Johnson continued to draw fouls and eventually tied the game at 25 apiece on a free throw with 7:28 left in the half. Of course, the Cru was helped by a vocal fan base, with students back on campus, and the momentum swung in the direction of UMHB as the first half wound down.
“This has always been a great place,” said head coach Clif Carroll postgame of the atmosphere inside the Mayborn Campus Center. “This is a special place to play. That is one of the reasons I wanted to be here so bad. The fan support is unbelievable, the community support is unbelievable. It is part of what makes Mary Hardin-Baylor elite.”
With just over four minutes to play, a fast break ensued, and a long pass was sent up the court in the direction of Johnson. Though the point guard laid the ball in, he hit the hardwood in obvious pain. He was limping as he was helped off the floor by team trainers with what appeared to be an ankle injury. It did not prove to be serious, however, as he checked back into the game right before the half and ended up playing 32 minutes.
As is the case with most conference matchups, the story of the game was written in the second half, as the lead changed on four different occasions, and the lead for either team was never more than 10. The Cru began to pull away from the Wildcats midway through the second half, leading 54-44 with 14 minutes to play. Turnovers had been UMHB’s achilles heel throughout non-conference play, and that weakness resurfaced Thursday, as the visitors from Pineville, Louisiana, went on a 13-4 run, highlighted by five UMHB turnovers during that time period. The difference remained in single digits for the remainder of the game, with Louisiana College roaring back to take a 68-67 lead with just 1:36 to play. After leading for nearly the entire second half, UMHB was looking straight into the jaws of defeat. That is when junior guard Carson Hammond stepped up.
Though he had just seven points as the clock ticked under a minute, Hammond found the ball in his hands on the following possession, and promptly drained a three-pointer from the corner to put the Crusaders back on top, 70-68. The energy inside the Mayborn Campus Center was unlike it had been all year, with hundreds of students cheering, and the entire UMHB bench on its feet as the ball swished through the hoop.
“Carson has been good all year,” said Carroll. “The only thing Carson has struggled with is turnovers. Frankly, we’re playing him out of position. He’s fighting out there everyday, and doing everything he can to win ballgames for us. When we get our main ballhandlers back next week, you’re going to see Carson slide off the ball and make a bunch of shots like that [three-pointer].”
UMHB never looked back, forcing a late turnover, and holding off a desparation three-point try from Baker with just three seconds to play. Johnson also made all four of his free throws in the final nine seconds, as the Wildcats were forced to foul.
Fouls played a critical role in the game for both teams, with a total of 36 fouls called in the contest. Both coaches had their moments of frustration with the officials, and so did the players. Both Gibson Hearne and Kyle Wright fouled out in the final minutes on quesitionable calls that earned more than a few frustrated cries from the fans in attendance. But playing through fouls, especially controversial ones, is something Carroll said he is constantly preaching to his team.
“We talk a lot about reactions to officiating,” said Carroll. “We try to take that out of our mind and play regardless of how the officials are going.”
He also flipped it around, and noted how the high number of fouls actually benefited his team in the win.
“We have a couple guys that have a special talent to get fouled,” said Carroll. “Josiah Johnson has shot more free throws than anyone in the country. That’s going to be a strength of ours. We have to be able to get to the line.”
Johnson certainly has a knack for finding his way to the charity stripe. After going 16-of-16 from the line Thursday, he tied the ASC record for most free throws in a game without a miss.
Thursday’s contest was a classic ASC battle. It was hard-fought, featured phenomenal defense, and the game was never blown wide open by either team. Carroll also noted postgame that the inability to pull away late is “a symptom of a young team” and something that this group will learn with time.
“I think we were up 10, and we went to a media timeout,” Carroll recalled. “People were yelling ‘[Louisiana College] is about to quit’. Teams don’t quit in the ASC. That’s a veteran team, but Kae’ron Baker is one of the best players in the country. [We’re] a young team that needs to mature. Our job is not done. We have to continue to work, and do the things that give us success. For a point there in the first half, we had four freshmen in there. Our youth shows, and its good that we’re getting good experience early.”
The victory moves UMHB to 4-3 on the season, and more importantly, 1-0 in ASC play. The Crusaders are aiming to go undefeated in conference action this season, and after passing its first test of the season Thursday, Belhaven will come to Belton and provide a similar challenge. The Cru and Blazers meet at 5 p.m. on Saturday at the Mayborn Campus Center.