The Texas Southern men’s basketball team made one of the most miraculous postseason runs ever, going from a team that barely made the SWAC Tournament as the eighth seed, but then making an improbable run to win a third straight championship for yet another NCAA Tournament bid.
But the Tigers’ struggles of the regular season got the best of them during Wednesday night’s NCAA Tournament First Four round when they fell to Fairleigh Dickinson 84-61 in Dayton, Ohio. The 16th-seeded Knights move on to face No.1 seed Purdue on Friday in an East Region game.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are heading home knowing they accomplished something no other TSU team had, and that is making three straight NCAA Tournament bids, and winning their previous two Tournament Play-In games.
“Three years in a row – winning is extremely hard,” said Johnny Jones, whose team finished an inconsistent season with a 14-21 record. “Winning championships is extremely tough to do, and I’m very blessed to have been
in position to win three straight championships and to really get to the NCAA Tournament three straight years. Those things don’t happen — we’re not sitting in a league where you get two, three people in, and you finish on top. You really have to do it the old-fashioned way, and that’s winning the championship, and that’s the way those things happen.”
On Wednesday night, not much the SWAC champions did worked against FDU, which led from wire to wire, in the battle to get to the official 64-team field.
Facing a team that is billed as the smallest team in Division I basketball, FDU seemed to use its size disadvantage against the Tigers, knocking down 3-pointers at a clip to get off to a 14-2 start.
TSU played better in the second half, but it was never enough to overcome the big first-half deficit the Tigers found themselves in.
The Knights shot nearly 41% from 3-point range, going 11 of 27. TSU, which has struggled with its 3-point shooting all season, converted an abysmal 1 of 17 from beyond the arc.
“I’m going to say I’m always surprised just because of the faith I have in my guys and my team and everybody around me,” said senior Joirdon Karl Nicholas, who is one of three seniors who has made all three NCAA Tournament trips with TSU. “We were fighting an uphill battle, so it’s kind of hard to come back when they’re hitting threes like that. They shot the ball really good today from the three-point line.”
John Walker III led TSU with 22 points, while Nicholas was the only other Tigers player in double figures with 10. Meanwhile, all five of the Knights’ starters scored in double figures, with forward Ansley Almonor leading the way with 23 points, which included shooting 5-for-8 from 3-point range.
Almonor, the Knights’ biggest player at 6-foot-6, turned out to be a problem the Tigers couldn’t solve.
His perimeter shooting forced TSU’s bigs to defend on the perimeter where they weren’t comfortable while also making it impossible for them to crash the boards for rebounds.
“They did an excellent job of knocking down threes,” Jones said. “They’re really good in terms of their motion offense that they run, and they run it at such a great pace. But if you make a mistake in terms of your ability to switch, they can get to the basket. They can play in the mid-range game, but also they’re really, really good when they get going from behind the three-point line, and they did tonight.”
The loss ended an impressive postseason run for the Tigers, who knocked off the No.1, No.5 and No.2 seeds to defend their SWAC championship. The loss also ends a memorable three-year run for seniors Jordan Gilliam, Walker and Nicholas.
“Unfortunately we’re losing a great group of guys, but at the same time it’s the nature of the business,” said Jones, whose name could come up for some bigger Division I jobs this offseason. “We’ve got to go out, make sure we can bring some guys in with these great core guys we have, returning to put ourselves in the best possible situation to compete at the highest level again next year. It’s certainly something we look forward to.”