When Tulane starting center Blake Paul picked up his third and fourth fouls in the first 25 seconds of the second half Wednesday night against Houston at Devlin Fieldhouse, backup Samir Sehic knew he was going in for the long haul.
When starting guard Jordan Cornish went to the bench with 12 minutes left after a rough stretch, freshman replacement Caleb Daniels knew he needed to be a difference-maker.
Mission accomplished. In the two key reserves’ nearly 11 minutes together on the floor, the Green Wave (12-6, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) revitalized its season heading into a tough road rematch with SMU (13-6, 3-3) at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Tulane, which trailed 52-49 before Daniels entered, led 77-69 by the time Sehic finally subbed out at the 1:16 mark. The Wave ended a two-game slide with its 81-72 victory, matched its conference win total of three from a year ago and handed NCAA tournament hopeful Houston (14-4, 4-2) only its fourth loss.
During the pivotal stretch, Sehic scored seven points, grabbed four rebounds and had a key assist on a Cameron Reynolds 3-pointer. Daniels, a St. Augustine product, scored eight points with three rebounds, leaping higher than everyone to pull down a pair of missed 3-pointers while Tulane protected a one-point lead and jumping over two defenders for a monster dunk.
“We’re valuable because we bring a different element off the bench,” Sehic said. “Caleb is super athletic. He’s adapting to college and with every single game, you can see him getting better. I bring a different dynamic because I’m a big that can go inside and out.”
Sehic, a 6-foot-9 sophomore Vanderbilt transfer who averages 9.9 points and 5.4 rebounds, played a career-high 30 minutes and fell one rebound shy of his first double-double (14 points, 9 rebounds) since the season opener. Despite Houston’s dominant rebounding advantage in the first half, he pulled down three offensive boards that led to five points.
His craftiness around the basket has been a revelation. Even with longer defenders guarding him, he finds ways to score.
“I’ve always been kind of an unathletic big inside, so I’ve learned to use my body really well and use both hands,” Sehic said. “I feel pretty comfortable with either left shoulder or right shoulder (moves). Being able to use my body inside is my biggest weapon.”
Against Houston, he also held up defensively, an early-season liability that helped limit him to an average of 15 minutes in the previous 10 games. The Cougars’ frontcourt players combined for 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting.
“It was a lot of fun,” Sehic said. “I just had to do what Coach (Mike Dunleavy) asked me to do. Hopefully in his eyes I stepped up and did what I needed to do to get a win.”
Dunleavy loved what he saw from both reserves.
“Sehic did a great job banging around,” he said. “It was a big contribution. Caleb only had three rebounds, and I thought he had 10 because all three were such big rebounds in traffic, and then he had the important dunk coming in from the corner against multiple defenders.”
Although Daniels is not immune to the ups and downs of a normal freshman, he has committed only five turnovers in 103 minutes of AAC play. He has hit 16 of 18 free throws in that span, including four in a row as Tulane finished off Houston.
Recovered from knee and ankle injuries that slowed him earlier, Daniels is averaging 7.7 points in 19 minutes with 59.3 percent shooting in his past seven games — significant upticks from his yearlong averages of 5.3 points and 45.5 percent shooting.
Biding his time on the bench, never easy for a freshman used to being a star in high school, has become second nature.
“I’m maturing every day with that,” Daniels said. “I’m learning how to deal with it. I just have to wait my turn. I’m a team player. I don’t care about anything but winning.”
LAGNIAPPE: Dunleavy said SMU played zone defense on every position of its upset victory at No. 7 Wichita State on Wednesday and likely would do the same against Tulane. The Mustangs ended a three-game skid that started with a 73-70 loss at Devlin Fieldhouse on Jan. 4. … SMU is playing at home for the first time since Temple snapped its 33-game winning streak in Dallas on Jan. 10.