NEW ORLEANS — Holding the ball at the top of the key, Tulane freshman Kajon Mack saw an opening against South Alabama and did not hesitate. Mack dribbled to his right, darted to the rim and slammed home a one-handed dunk early in the second half of the Green Wave’s 84-73 first-round victory in the CollegeInsider.com men’s basketball tournament on Wednesday night.
For Tulane (20-14), which won it first postseason game in 17 years, the CIT is not just about making history. It’s about influencing the future as well.
Mack and fellow freshman Louis Dabney will be key figures as Tulane tries to move up the Conference USA ladder next season, and both of them played one of their best games against South Alabama.
Mack went 4 for 4 from the floor. His nine points were his second-highest total of the season, and his eighth 3-pointer of the year gave the Green Wave its largest lead of the night at 76-60.
Dabney grabbed four rebounds in the second half, including three on the offensive end, and all led to points. He fed Mack for a basket on the first and was fouled after the other three, hitting six free throws as Tulane maintained a comfortable margin.
“Both of them have fought through the freshman wall a little bit, and they’ve gotten a second wind here in the postseason,” Tulane coach Ed Conroy said. “Not only did they play well in the game and get some confidence from that, but also a hunger that hopefully feeds over into the summer to where we want to take this program.”
For different reasons, Dabney and Mack have been part-time players as freshman for Tulane, which plays at Bradley (17-16) in the CIT second round at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Dabney, a top recruit who attended nearby Riverside Academy in Reserve, has not recovered fully from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in November of 2011. He still wears a brace on his right knee, limiting his mobility.
His numbers this season (1.9 points per game, .286 shooting percentage) do not reflect his potential.
“I’m not 100 percent yet, but I feel a lot better than I’ve been feeling,” he said. “I’m like 85 percent now. Before I came here, I was one of the top defenders in the state. With my knee weak the way it is, it’s hard to play defense the way I want to.”
His frustration mounted in the first half against South Alabama when he missed a defensive assignment and allowed an open 3-pointer. Conroy benched him at the next dead ball, and the two had a heated discussion later in the first half.
When Dabney returned at the 14:46 mark of the second half, he was a different player. His seven points were his third highest total of the year, and his four rebounds were second.
“I just calmed myself down and went in and did what coach asked me to do,” he said. “It felt good to help get a big win like that.”
Mack, from Gardena, Calif., chose Tulane when the Pac-10 schools that were pursuing him told him he would have to wait a year before getting a scholarship. An outstanding athlete, he wasn’t quite ready for the rigors of Division I basketball.
Although starting seven times, he averaged only 2.4 points before Wednesday’s game and reached double figures only once. He played a season-best 26 minutes against South Alabama, matching his high for field goals.
That driving dunk early in the second half energized the entire team.
“I was going to lay it up, but my coaches always say dunk the ball, so I dunked it in,” he said. “I felt comfortable, I felt confident. My teammates told me to stay aggressive.”
First-team all-conference forward Josh Davis was the primary factor in Tulane’s win, pouring in 26 points and adding 12 rebounds, but Mack and Dabney played significant roles. Conroy is looking for more of the same against Bradley, which went 6-3 at home in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“The benefit of playing in a postseason game, just like a bowl game, is your young guys gain from that experience,” Conroy said. “In the first half, I didn’t think either one of played their best, but they saw what it was about, regrouped and really were the two MVPs of the second half.”