KATY — Freshman Jeromie Hill poured in 25 points and senior Devin Gibson added 15 to lead UTSA to a 75-72 victory against McNeese State in Saturday's State Farm Southland Conference Tournament Championship Game. The Roadrunners (19-13) earned the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s fourth overall and first since 2004.
UTSA held as much as nine-point lead against the Regular Season Champion Cowboys (21-11), but it had to withstand a flurry of 3-pointers in the final minutes to secure the victory.
"I'm very proud to be sitting up here, there's no doubt about it," fifth-year head coach Brooks Thompson said in the postgame press conference. "It was a tremendous basketball game and very hard-fought on both sides. It was interesting in the end, not only with our effort, but the will of the McNeese State seniors to never give up. They deserve a lot of credit. They won the regular season title and came in as the No. 1 seed. It took everything we had just to get this opportunity to win.
"I can’t say enough about the two guys up here seated next to me (Devin Gibson/Jeromie Hill)," Thompson said. "Devin was especially good in the
second half and, with Jeromie getting rebounds and making some big shots,
they both stepped up. This is really about our players. I can't sit
here and tell you how proud I am of these guys for what they've done all
year long. I think they're so deserving of it. They're just wonderful
student-athletes. What they've done in the last two weeks, especially
the win at UT Arlington, we wouldn't be sitting here today."
Junior Stephen Franklin, who posted his first double-double of the year with 10 points and 10 rebounds, drained a three from the wing with 4:43 to play put UTSA up 60-53, but McNeese answered with a Patrick Richard layup and a trey by Diego Kapelan to pull back to within two.
A Gibson leaner put the Roadrunners up, 66-58, with 2:38 to play, but the Cowboys once again responded with a Stephan Martin basket, who had a chance for a 3-point play but missed the and-one free throw.
With the clock under the two-minute mark, McNeese State began fouling to extend the game.
Gibson, who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, was sent to the line where he made 1-of-2 to give UTSA a 67-60 advantage with 1:41 remaining.
The Cowboys then missed a three at the other end and quickly fouled Franklin, who calmly knocked down a pair to push the lead to nine with 1:21 remaining.
Kapelan, who led McNeese with 20 points on the strength of four treys, began the 3-point barrage on the next possession and P.J. Alawoya answered a pair of free throws by junior Larry Wilkins with another trey to cut the UTSA lead to five (71-66) with 44 ticks left.
Gibson quickly was fouled and made both, but C.J. Collins then connected from long distance to make it 73-69 with 36 seconds to go.
McNeese then chose to foul Gibson again, who missed the first but made the second to push the advantage back to five.
However, the Cowboys weren’t done, as Martin found the bottom of the net from the top of the circle to pull them to within two at 74-72 with 29 seconds to play.
McNeese then fouled junior Sei Paye when he crossed midcourt, but the guard saw both freebies rim in and out.
With a chance to tie or take the lead, McNeese State missed a layup and a 3-pointer and then turned the ball over to the Roadrunners when Collins stepped on the baseline.
Sophomore Melvin Johnson III, who scored 14 points, was fouled and made 1-of-2, giving the Cowboys one last chance to tie.
Richard got a good look from the corner, but the 3-point attempt fell short and Hill, who joined Gibson on the all-tournament team, cleared the boards to clinch the trip to "The Big Dance."
Hill was 10-of-14 from the floor, including a perfect 4-for-4 from downtown, in recording his second 20-point game of the tournament and third of the year.
Meanwhile, Gibson’s 15 came via a 4-for-10 effort from the field and a 7-for-10 afternoon at the line, and the Houston native added four rebounds, three assists and a steal.
"To be honest, there are so many thoughts going through my head," Gibson said about winning the championship. "I thank Jesus and my grandmother, who is no longer with us, but I know she was up there helping me. Looking back on the last four years, I’m just like, 'wow, it finally happened.'"
UTSA blistered the nets at a 59.1-percent clip in the second half and shot 46.3 percent overall. The Roadrunners also committed just six turnovers and their 2-3 zone limited McNeese to just 26.7 percent (8-for-30) from downtown.
Richard (12 points/10 rebounds) and Alawoya (10 points/12 boards) posted double-doubles for the Cowboys. Stephan Martin also reached double figures with 16 points for McNeese, who secured an NIT bid by virtue of its regular season title.
Both teams shot below 40 percent in the first half.
UTSA was 12-of-32 (37.5 percent) from the floor, but the Birds did make 4-of-10 from beyond the arc, while McNeese shot 36.7 percent (11-of-30), including just 2-of-13 (15.4 percent) from long distance. The teams combined to commit just eight fouls (four each) and there were only six turnovers, two by UTSA, in the stanza.
Hill scored drained a pair of early threes and hit a 15-foot jumper at the 11:25 mark to hand the Roadrunners a 15-9 lead.
Gibson took a shot to the left side of his face near the 16-minute mark and scored only two points in just 10 minutes of action in the first half. Hill led the way with 13 and sophomore Kalif Bakare, a Houston native, posted two points, a pair of rebounds and three assists in Gibson’s absence to help UTSA take a 30-28 lead into the locker room.
"The last two years at home in Australia, I was at home watching all the college games on ESPN and the NCAA Tournament, knowing once day I'd have the opportunity to get there," Hill said. "I'm very thankful and humbled to be going."
UTSA will find out its NCAA Tournament assignment during Sunday's selection show, which will air from 5-6 p.m. on CBS.