In November and most of December, an untimely injury prevented freshman guard Caleb Daniels from being the player everyone on the Tulane men’s basketball team knew he could be.
That all changed Thursday afternoon at Devlin Fieldhouse. Finally recovered from a hyperextended right knee he sustained a day before the season opener and a high left ankle sprain that bothered him as well, Daniels was the difference off the bench as Tulane beat South Alabama 77-73.
With the score tied at 71, he cut along the baseline, received a pass from Jordan Cornish and converted an unlikely 3-point play. Taking hard contact as he elevated for a dunk, he somehow still forced the ball through the hoop with 28.6 seconds left, giving the Green Wave (9-3) the lead for good after it blew an 18-point advantage on the Jaguars (6-6).
“Honestly, I have no clue (how it went in),” he said. “I just hoped for the best, went up strong and just finished it.”
Daniels, from St. Augustine High, scored a season-best 12 points after averaging 3.6 in the first 11 games. He drained both of his 3-point attempts in the first half, sank a pull-up mid-range jumper in transition, added two steals and blocked two shots in 25 seconds during the second half.
Strong and athletic, he is back to full strength just in time for Tulane’s American Athletic Conference opener next Thursday at Temple.
“The game we saw him play today was the game we saw him play every single day up until his injury,” coach Mike Dunleavy said. “It throws you off the track you’re on and takes you a bit of time to get back, but his effort has been great. This is the player he is, and even better.”
The Wave needed Daniels to survive an unexpected nail-biter.
Tulane led by double digits midway through the first half and went up 42-24 on Daniels’ second 3, having outrebounding the Jaguars by an almost 2-1 margin to that point.
But South Alabama closed the first half on a 9-2 run and hit three 3-pointers in the first 74 seconds of the second half, pulling within 44-42. Leading scorer Rodrick Sikes drained shot after shot.
Tulane did not get a handle on Sikes, who scored 30 of his career-high 34 points in the last 22:05, until the Jaguars’ final possession.
With the Green Wave leading 75-73, Cameron Reynolds cut off Sikes as he tried to drive, and center Blake Paul stripped the ball with five seconds left. Forward Melvin Frazier sank a pair of free throws in the final second to seal the victory.
“I remembered Sikes getting open when I wasn’t there to extend,” Paul said. “I was just happy to be in the right spot to tip the ball away.”
Frazier led the Wave with 18 points, six rebounds and six assists, hitting 5 of 6 shots from the floor and all six of his free throws. Cameron Reynolds added 15 points and nine rebounds, with point guard Ray Ona Embo and Paul each scoring 11.
Tulane escaped with a victory despite taking a series of bad shots and hitting just two of them in the first 10 minutes of the second half. South Alabama, earned its first lead at 53-52 on an alley-oop with 12:35 left, went back ahead on a 4-point play by Sikes and padded the advantage to 69-66 on two free throws at the 2:25 mark.
The Wave responded with a layup by Ona Embo, who could barely move as he tried to return from a sprained right ankle he sustained when he landed on the foot of a South Alabama player.
South Alabama then committed an unforced turnover on an air-mailed crosscourt pass, and Frazier hit an open 3-pointer at the 1:25 mark to put Tulane ahead 71-69.
The Jaguars tied the score on a put-back, setting up Daniels’ huge basket.
Happy with the finish, Dunleavy was concerned about Ona Embo, who left again shortly after his final basket.
“You are supposed to be able to go up and land without somebody putting their foot under you,” he said. “That hurts us a little bit. The good news is we have some time here to hopefully get it healed by the Temple game.”