CLARKSVILLE, Ark. – After coming up 90 seconds short of upsetting one of the top teams in NCAA Division III during the regular season, the Louisiana College men’s basketball team left no doubt in the rematch with #10 Mary Hardin-Baylor, jumping out to a 16-point lead and then closed the game out late to advance to the ASC Championship Game for the first time since 2016 with an 89-72 win over the Crusaders in the semifinals of the 2021 American Southwest Conference Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament Sunday afternoon at Mabee Gymnasium on the campus of the University of the Ozarks.
Over the game’s first nine minutes, the two teams were nearly inseparable as neither team led by more than three points during those opening moments. But KJ Bilbo started to open things up as he hit threes on back-to-back LC possessions around a UMHB bucket that started a 10-2 Wildcats run, which Kae’ron Baker ended with a floater in the paint to give LC a 24-16 lead with less than 7:30 remaining in the first half. Several possessions later, that lead was bumped up to nine points several possessions later off another three-pointer by Bilbo, who hit six threes in the first half and scored 20 points, to make the score 29-20 with just less than five minutes remaining in the first half. The final bucket of the first half was yet another three by Bilbo that gave the Wildcats a 35-26 lead as the two teams went to the locker room.
The Bilbo three to end the first half was just the first points of a 10-0 LC run sandwiched around halftime that gave LC quite a bit of breathing room. Kae’ron Baker hit a three to start the second half and then a bucket by Bailey Hardy followed by a transition bucket by Baker gave LC its largest lead to that point at 42-26 just 90 seconds into the second half. UMHB scored the next five, but the Wildcats responded with the five following that to reestablish the 16-point lead as Baker hit a three with 15:20 left to make the score 47-31.
But with the season on the line and playing a top-ranked team, you knew a run was coming. And the Crusaders had a good one left in them, going on a 28-9 burst to claim their first lead since there was more than 11:30 remaining in the first half when a three-pointer gave UMHB a 59-56 lead with 8:45 left in the game.
That lead by UMHB was fleeting, however, as KJ Bilbo reemerged to drain a three on LC’s ensuing possession to tie the game back up at 59-59, and then Kae’ron Baker got to the rim for a lay-up to give the Wildcats the lead for good. The 8-0 LC run was concluded when KJ Bilbo was fouled shooting a three and sank all three of the resulting free throws to put the Wildcats back up 64-59 with 6:51 left in the game.
With less than a minute remaining and the Wildcats holding on to a tenuous five-point, 77-72 lead, KJ Bilbo scored and was fouled in the play that ultimately gave LC the breathing room necessary to close out the win as Bilbo made the free throw to make it 80-72. After a pair of misses by UMHB was followed by made free throws by Baker and Ferontay Banks, the benches were emptied as the realization came to light that LC was headed to play for the ASC Championship.
“I thought we were tremendous in the first half defensively,” said Louisiana College Head Coach Reni Mason. “In the second half they made a run, I was so proud of the fortitude of our guys not to fold down the stretch and play to win. We have until midnight to enjoy this one but we still have work to do.”
KJ Bilbo had a monster game in the win, going 11-of-18 from the field, including seven-of-14 from long distance, to finish the game with a career high 33 points. Bilbo also grabbed seven rebounds, had two assists, and blocked a shot. Kae’ron Baker continued with his consistently good season, going ten-of-14, including four-of-seven from deep to finish with 26 points. Galen Smith, Jr. got to the free throw line ten times and sank seven of those attempts to help him finish with 13 points to go along with seven rebounds, five assists, and a blocked shot.
LC shot 64% in the second half to finish the game hitting on a 53.6% clip while holding UMHB to just 39.3% shooting in the contest, which was the difference in the contest.
The Wildcats (11-4) now head to their second ever ASC Tournament Final on Monday night, first since 2016, looking to claim their first ever ASC Championship in the program’s final game as a member of the American Southwest Conference. They will take on host school University of the Ozarks, which will be playing in its first Final. Both games between the two teams in the regular season were canceled, one due to COVID-19 protocols and the other due to winter weather. Tip-off of Monday’s night’s Championship Game against the Eagles (9-3) is set for 6:00 P.M. at Mabee Gymnasium in Clarksville.