BELTON- Seeking revenge for a Dec. 11 loss on its home floor, there was an energy level present within the UMHB men’s basketball program that superseded anything the box score showed.
And that intensity powered the Cru, No. 21 in the nation, to Thursday night’s 82-76 victory over rival Hardin-Simmons.
“In the second half, we made some tough plays defensively,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll said postgame. “We had some big rebounds. We did a nice job, after they had offensive rebounds, of not letting them score.”
The Cowboys tallied 21 offensive rebounds but managed just 16 second-chance points, a testament to UMHB’s defensive toughness. The Cru remained locked in throughout a competitive second half, outscoring HSU 42-37 over the final 20 minutes of play.
With two minutes left, it was a one-possession game, as UMHB led 77-74. Will Bartozek converted on a jumper in the paint with 2:01 left, but it was HSU’s final made field goal, as the Cru held possession for much of the final minute. In fact, the visitors from Abilene managed just one shot from the field, a missed three-pointer, within that span, as the Crusaders tallied five points en route to victory.
“It was just an incredible effort by the guys,” Carroll said postgame. “They locked in there in the second half, and did a really nice job.”
Facing the league’s top defense, Carroll knew offense would not come easily. But his squad produced well on that end of the floor, shooting 52 percent for the game, and 57 percent in the second half.
“For us, it’s about moving the basketball, finding the right matchups, and finding the right shots” Carroll said. “I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
The three-point shooting was critical in the winning effort, as Payton Brooks drained three critical shots from beyond the arc in the first half, and Carson Hammond connected from the left corner with 5:23 to play. Hammond’s trey was his only shot of the second half, and put UMHB in front, 70-69, in a play that ignited a roar from the crowd. Beginning with Kyle Wright’s three on the Cru’s third possession, UMHB was an impressive eight-of-16 from three-point range.
Leading the offensive effort was guard Josiah Johnson, who tallied a team-high 23 points and team-high seven rebounds, back in action after missing the Ozarks game a week ago. His play was key, as the junior tied the score at 37 with 1:46 in the first half, and also dished out two assists.
“We knew that after taking a week off, there was going to be some rust there,” Carroll said of Johnson. “I challenged him in practice, and he responded today. He’s just a competitor. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
The Cru opened the second half with four points in the first two minutes, taking a 44-43 lead, and stayed in step with HSU throughout the final 20 minutes. With 3:44 remaining, and the score tied at 42, Luke Feely’s short-range shot fell through, and UMHB took back the lead, this time for good. HSU got as close as three points, but was unable to close the gap against the Crusader defense.
The victory was a tremendous momentum booster for the Cru, who had lost to HSU, 80-77, in Abilene on Dec. 11. UMHB, a 9-2 in ASC play, is a half-game back from LeTourneau in the ASC standings, and late in the conference schedule, every game proves crucial.
“We’re here to win championships,” Carroll said. “We don’t run from it. We don’t hide from it. That’s our expectation. If we want to win championships, we need to win big games like this.”
UMHB returns to action on Saturday afternoon, hosting McMurry at 3 p.m. CT.
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