When the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament was about to begin, Dillard coach Mike Newell said the Bleu Devils would have a chance to win the championship if they shot the ball “decently.”
They shot a lot better than that Sunday in the tournament championship game in beating Xavier 84-71 at Xavier’s Convocation Center. It was Dillard’s first tournament championship since 2001.
“This was our best shooting performance of the season,” Newell said. “Our strength is that we play together. We share the ball. But we just had an unbelievable shooting night.”
The Bleu Devils (21-11) earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NAIA tournament, with first-round games being played Thursday and Friday. Seedings will be announced Wednesday.
In getting there, Dillard shot 25-of-45 (55.6 percent), including 12-of-22 on 3-pointers. Guards Jessie Ward and Houston Chatman combined to go 8-of-14 behind the 3-point line and score 35 points.
That was more than ample support for tournament MVP Demetric Austin, who had 22 points and seven rebounds.
“It all starts with Demetric,” said point guard Dennis Hightower, who had 11 assists and joined Ward and Austin on the all-tournament team. “Teams have to double down on him, and that opens things up for everybody.”
That was clear from the start. Austin was nearly unstoppable in the first half, scoring 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Chatman went 3-of-3 on 3s-pointers in the first half, scoring 15 points. When Xavier (21-12) closed hard to prevent Dillard’s outside shots, Chatman and forward Dennis Reed cut to the basket for layups. The Devils led 40-31 at halftime.
Ward took over in the second half where Chatman left off, scoring 16 points. During the first six minutes of the second half, he sank two 3-pointers and two free throws in a 12-5 burst that gave Dillard a 52-36 lead at the 13:58 mark.
Gary Smith scored a game-high 24 points for Xavier, which shot 37.5 percent, although it grabbed 20 offensive rebounds. Coach Dannton Jackson said having a double-overtime win against Tougaloo in the first round Friday followed by a big emotion win against No. 1 seed Talladega in Saturday’s semifinals appeared to have taken its toll.
“I tip my hat to Dillard for winning the conference tournament in coach Newell’s first year with a new team of players,” Jackson said. “But it looked like we didn’t have any juice. Dillard shot the ball extremely well.”