It’s seemed like every adversity the Texas Southern men’s basketball team could go through this season they’ve been through it.
They’ve dealt with quarantining and stoppages during the season because of COVID-19. Then there was the unexpected winter storm that left them with so much damage in their home arena that during the last few weeks of the season they had to find neutral site arenas to play their home games, and during practices they could only use one half of the court.
But through it all, the 16th-seeded Tigers still managed to string together wins, which included an impressive 60-52 victory over Mount St. Mary’s during the opening game of the First Four of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Bloomington, Ind. It’s just the second NCAA Tournament win in the history of the Tigers basketball program.
For winning the play-in game, the Tigers have earned the right to take on No.1 seed Michigan on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“That means everything, just being able to look to your left or your right and know that if you mess up your other guys will pick you up. It’s amazing,” said TSU junior forward John Walker III who scored a game-high 19 points to go along with nine rebounds. “This whole year we’ve been building that bond. We’ve been quarantining together, we’ve been on the road with weather together. So, you really have no choice but to like these fools.”
So when adversity hit with the Tigers being down by 10 points at halftime Thursday, it was nothing new. They came in the second half and promptly scored the first 11 points to regain the lead and momentum against a scrappy Mount St. Mary’s team. Walker scored the first six points of the second half to set the more aggressive tone.
“I thought our guys did a tremendous job of battling back there in the second half,” said TSU coach Johnny Jones, whose team has now won 10 straight and 15 of its last 16 games. “I thought they did a really good job of controlling the tempo in the first half of the basketball and even finishing with big-time momentum on a layup at the buzzer at halftime. But our guys did a tremendous job of coming back out.”
Mount St. Mary’s struggled to find an answer for Walker throughout much of the second half, which was huge because the Tigers’ best player, Michael Weathers, struggled with foul trouble throughout and finished with just eight points and four assists. Guard Jordan Gilliam also finished in double figures for TSU with 12 points.
“John was incredible. I thought he was exceptional, played well for us,” Jones said. “John is very elusive. When he catches that ball inside he has a knack for scoring.
“As hard as our guys played today, I thought he was a huge difference in the basketball game because I thought he was a matchup problem for our opponent today.”
Walker said the message from Jones at halftime was a simple reminder that the team has overcome many difficult spots this season.
“The main message was not to get down about being down because we’ve just been in situations of adversity so much throughout the year,” Walker said. “It was just, do what we always do and that’s just bounce back through the adversity.
“It was just keeping a level head and playing through and just getting to that breaking point on the other team so that we can just take off on them.”
Now the stakes go up considerably for a program that prides itself on playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country year in and year out. It doesn’t get any tougher than Michigan, which has been one of the top two teams in the country this entire season under Juwan Howard.
“That’s just an unbelievable opportunity for us again,” Walker said. “We know that that is a great team and we are just blessed to have the opportunity to showcase our talent against such a high-level team. And it’s going to be a good one for sure.”