By BRAD KEITH
(February 8, 2017) — Many who closely follow the Lone Star Conference may be surprised by the turnaround of Texas A&M-Kingsville, which upset No. 11 Tarleton State on January 7 in Kingsville and now brings a six-game win streak to Wisdom Gym.
Tarleton hosts the Javelinas for an LSC doubleheader with women at 5:30 p.m. and men at 7:30 Thursday in Stephenville. A win by the Texans would be their 500th since moving from the NAIA to the NCAA in 1994.
One person not surprised to see the Javelinas back among the top tier of LSC teams is veteran Tarleton head coach Lonn Reisman, who has said since third-year TAMUK head coach Johnny Estelle was hired that a storm was brewing at the southern-most school in the conference.
“He played there and was a graduate assistant there and when they hired him back as head coach after he was an assistant coach at Houston, I felt like they were bringing home a winner,” said Reisman. “He has done a great job of recruiting talented players who have bought into his system and execute the things he teaches.
“And it’s a team that has gelled at the right time,” Reisman added. “You can’t argue with a six-game win streak and you sure can’t argue with being in the top half of the Lone Star Conference, because this is a very tough league, one of the best in the nation in Division II.”
Estelle and his Javelinas upset Tarleton, 76-71, in Kingsville, and they’re current six-game win streak is their longest since 2008-09.
“Maybe the biggest thing that stood out to me is just how hard they play and how well they play together. Chemistry is such an important part of the game, and he really seems to have brought a positive chemistry together there,” said Reisman. “I felt we never matched their intensity that day, and we have to do that or they will beat us in our house, too.”
The Javelinas kept their win streak going with a pair of nail biters last week, fighting off a late deficit to edge Midwestern State, 60-59, then hitting a midrange jumper with three seconds remaining to top Cameron, 58-56.
A&M-Kingsville lost on the road, 83-76 at UT-Permian Basin and 80-65 at West Texas A&M, in the week following its upset of Tarleton, but hasn’t lost since. The Javs returned to the Steinke Center and took care of Eastern and Western New Mexico, then earned back-to-back wins over Angelo State, both by double digits home and away.
But last week showed a different side of the Javs. It showed their mental toughness, Reisman said.
“We know how hard it is to beat Midwestern and Cameron back-to-back and I feel very fortunate and blessed to have come out of those weeks against those teams with four wins this year,” said Reisman, whose club has swept MSU and Cameron with three of the four games being determined by single digits. “I have a lot of resect for A&M-Kingsville and for Coach Estelle, and I think they will continue to rise and be a force in this league.”
The Javs are led by Duan Wright, who averages 12.1 points, helped by his 19-point explosion in the upset of Tarleton. Trey Sumpter averages 11.6 and Caelan Neal 10.2.
The Javs shot 42.9 percent from the floor and 47.8 percent from the arc, where they were 11-23, in their win over the Texans. They survived 23 points by Tarleton guard Ridell Camidge largely because Tarleton shot just 32.1 percent as a team including only 28 percent (7-25) from the 3-point line.
Jenkins was in foul trouble much of that game and finished with just four points and seven boards two days after scoring 20 in the second half at Angelo State. The senior center is the LSC Defensive Player of the Week after averaging 15.5 points and 15 rebounds with his 12th and 13th double-doubles in last week’s sweep of Eastern and Western New Mexico.
For the season, Tarleton is led by Camidge at 15.1 points per game, but lately, the team has been paced by senior starters Jenkins and Chantz Chambers. Jenkins averages 12.7 points and 11.1 rebounds and is trying to become the first Texan since Eric Williams in 2008-09 to average a double-double for the season. Chambers is second on the team at 13.1 points per game.
“We know what’s on the line for us,” said Reisman. “We’re coming down the stretch and we are right where we need to be in terms of competing not only for a Lone Star Conference championship and No. 1 seed in the (LSC tourney), but also for a high seed, hopefully the No. 1 seed, in the regional tournament.
“We used to talk about those things with our team, but nowadays with the internet and social media the way it is, they know where they are at, it’s everywhere they look,” Reisman said. “And if they need to be told to get up for a game like this, there is something wrong.”
Reisman is hoping for a large crowd to help make a difference Thursday. The Texans still lead the league in attendance, but are averaging less than 1,500 fans per game after finishing eighth in the nation in 2015-16 with an average of 2,097.
The suspension of the Plowboys and the bevy of student-fans who joined them for games has hurt, along with other factors. Reisman is hoping that the final two home games of the season mark a return to the crowds of yesteryear.
“We still have great crowds, and we very much appreciate the support of the university and the community as we are out here representing Tarleton and Stephenville to the best of our ability,” he said. “I’m hoping that on Thursday and Saturday (Tarleton hosts Angelo State Saturday in games to be broadcast by ESPN3 and the ESPNWatch App) that we can remind everyone just how big a home court advantage Wisdom Gym gives to us, and to do that we need the type of atmosphere we’ve had for big LSC games in years past.”
There are promotions such as gas card giveaways at all Tarleton home games, but Thursday has a special added touch with the Dallas Cowboys sending their Hall of Fame Tour bus to the Stephenville campus. Fans will be able to see many historic Cowboys memorabilia including Super Bowl trophies.
“We always strive to make our home games fun events for the entire family and the entire community,” Reisman said. “I don’t know anywhere else in the country on Thursday where you can see two college basketball games and Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl trophies in one place.”
Nowhere. Because there is nowhere quite like Wisdom Gym.
At least that’s what Reisman and company are hoping to leave A&M-Kingsville saying as the Texans look to avenge their prior loss and maintain their narrow lead atop the LSC standings.
“Every game is big. This one’s big, then because of where we are in the season, the next one just gets bigger and they continue to build in importance as we go,” Reisman said. “We get everyone’s best shot every night, we know that, so we need to give them our best shot, too.”