By BRAD KEITH
ALLEN (March 4, 2015) — No. 7 Tarleton State (27-2) showed the defensive intensity that led it to the top of the Lone Star Conference during the regular season Wednesday night, cruising to a 80-50 win over last-place Eastern New Mexico (7-21) in the opening game of the Lone Star Conference Championship.
The test will get much tougher in the semifinal round of the tournament at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Tarleton, winner of 14 straight overall and seven straight tourney games at Allen Event Center, faces the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal between No. 4 seed Texas A&M-Commerce and No. 5 West Texas A&M.
Tarleton, the No. 1 team in all three South Central Region polls this season, blew the game open with a prolonged 33-6 run over a span of 10 minutes in the first half. The Texans led 44-16 by intermission, when they were shooting 60.9 percent and ENMU just 22.2 percent.
A series of rim-rattling dunks – most of them from Malcolm Hamilton – and seven blocked shots – four by EJ Reed – showed the difference in athleticism, as did a glaring 50-22 Tarleton advantage in rebounds.
The Texans cooled off in the second half, especially after clearing the bench, and finished shooting 51.9 percent. ENMU finished at just 29.1 percent.
Bench play helped make it an easy win for Tarleton, as Hamilton poured in 21 points on 9-13 shooting while also grabbing eight rebounds, and Damion Clemons scored nine and grabbed a career-best 12 boards. The Texan bench outscored ENMU 38-12, and Tarleton won the battle in the paint 40-18.
“It doesn’t matter to us if we start or come off the bench,” said Hamilton, who has started three games and come off the bench in 26 contests. “We all have a job to do and we all want to help the team win.”
Mo Lee filled out the stat sheet with 16 point, seven rebounds and six assists. Lee, a senior guard and first-team all-conference selection, has scored 14 or more in 10 straight games.
“It’s all my coaches and teammates,” said Lee of his recent success. “We all work together, I couldn’t do anything unless everyone else does their job.”
Tarleton did have 18 turnovers – many of them coming after the game was already out of reach – but offset those with 17 assists and six steals.
Eastern New Mexico did receive a strong performance from John Gilliam with 18 points and five rebound, while Michael Randle scored 14.
Tarleton swept three games from Eastern New Mexico this season, with the largest victory coming in their final meeting. The Texans beat ENMU 89-64 in Portales and 65-55 in Stephenville.