The Cougars saw a big early lead slip away, but would not be denied, roaring back with a second half comeback to eliminate the Saluqis in a big way by a final count of 75-59. With the win, the Cougars secured themselves a spot in the semifinals Friday night against Walters State which upset Volunteer State to secure a spot in the semis. Motlow State will take on Jackson in the other men’s semi, while Walters State and Chattanooga State will tangle on the women’s side of the draw along with Volunteer State and Dyersburg.
“I was very pleased with the win; we didn’t play particularly well in the first half and let a lead get away,” explained Cougar coach Lee Cigliano. “The zone gave us some problems, but we came out more focused in the second half and rebounded the ball better. Travis had a great game and Ralph came up with some big steals and we seemed to be able to get the big shot when we needed it.”
The Cougars fell behind even before the opening tip after being whistled for a technical for a wrong uniform number. The Saluquis hit 1-of-2 shots and the Cougars trailed 1-0 before the clock even started. This seemed to be a rallying point for the Cougars who proceeded to score the next nine points after Travis Jones nailed a 3-pointer and a driving layup while Trey Suttles added an offensive rebound putback during the rally.
Two buckets by Ralph Eason and another from Suttles pushed the Cougar lead to 11 points at 20-9. The Saluqis then changed their defense to a zone and it completely stopped the Cougars’ run midway through the half, spurring a 13-2 outburst to tie the contest at 22-all. Marshun Newell poured in all 14 of his points in the first half as the Saluqis took their first lead since the opening tip. Three straight Cleveland State turnovers created easy Saluqi buckets in the final moments of the first half as Southwest scored the final eight points to take a 32-26 lead at the break.
The Cougars quickly erased the halftime deficit with a 16-2 run to start the second half and would never trail again. A trey from Gabe Dando and a three-point play by Suttles helped the Cougars to an eight point lead at 42-34.
The Saluquis did not go quietly though, staying within striking distance over the next 10 minutes and cutting the lead to as little as three points on two different occasions. Justin Street flexed his considerable muscle in the paint, pouring in 17 of his 21 points in the second half. But, each time the Cougars came up with the big shot to sustain their lead.
Eason put the exclamation point on the win with a steal and a highlight film reverse slam dunk to push the lead back to eight points with just under four minutes to go. The Cougars then hit 7-of-8 free tosses down the stretch after not shooting well from the line during the game to secure the win and a spot in the semifinals Friday.
A scary moment for the Cougars came midway through the second half when Filipe Goncalves went up for a layup and was fouled hard, hitting the floor in awkward manner. Goncalves had to be helped from the floor.
Jones paved the way for the Cougars (19-9) with 24 points and seven rebounds, Eason added 19 points and 12 boards, Kahan Swift had a big night with nine points and eight rebounds, while Suttles and Xavier Okoro finished with eight points apiece. Suttles also added 10 rebounds to the cause. After Street’s 21 points to lead the Saluqis (12-11), Newell had 14 and Dikembe Wells added 12.
The Cougars shot an even 50 percent for the game while holding the Saluqis to only 37 percent. The Cougars also won the battle on the boards 46-29. The Saluqis were also 0-for-16 from three-point land.
In other quarterfinal round action, top-seeded Motlow State eliminated Chattanooga State 89-82, Jackson State squeezed by Roane State by one point, 68-67, and seventh-seeded Walters State pulled off the upset of second seed Volunteer State 68-59.
In the women’s action Wednesday, top-seeded Walters State had no problems eliminating Columbia State, Chattanooga State topped Cleveland State, Volunteer State took care of Roane State and sixth-seeded Dyersburg State pulled off the upset of No. 3 seed Southwest Tennessee.