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Taran Armstrong and CBU take on Sam Houston on Wednesday night in the second round of the WAC Tournament. Courtesy Western Athletic Conference.

WAC Tournament Preview: California Baptist vs. Sam Houston

Day two begins at the 2022 WAC Tournament after an entertaining opening round double header on Tuesday night. While No. 5 seed Sam Houston State was enjoying their opening round bye, California Baptist was in a hard fought battle with a pesky UTRGV who took things to the last possession and a last second 3-point attempt.

The history between Sam Houston and California Baptist only goes back one game. And with Sam Houston leaving the WAC for Conference-USA on July 1st, 2023 with New Mexico State, it won’t become much bigger in years to come. But for now, that lone meeting was back on January 26, 2022 in Riverside, CA. The Bearkats took a 73-68 road win back home to Texas, led by 28 points and 8 rebounds from graduate transfer Savion Flagg. Tre Armstrong and Daniel Akin’s tried to keep the Lancers in the ball game before ultimately falling short.

California Baptist barely got past the Vaqueros on Tuesday. So to get past a well-rested Bearkat squad with one of the conference’s best players will surely take a March Madness miracle.

No. 8 California Baptist 18-14 (8-11, in the WAC)

Rick Croy’s Lancers hung around all season in the revamped WAC. Most of the scoring power from last season returns and CBU had an influx of talent via the transfer portal. According to Croy, this team is offensively different from last year’s 4th place finish and No. 4 seed.

There are plenty of players across the roster who can light up the boxscore any given night. But it is the defensive side of the ball where the Lancers have changed. Some nights, Lancers’ games ended in a 56-53 or so score. Without starting point guard Taran Armstrong for five weeks, the mentality had to change. California Baptist is still ineligible to actually go to the NCAA Tournament (insert A-Sun Champions Bellarmine’s story here). But a tournament championship by the still-transitioning program is worth fighting for, no matter how frustrating the result may be.

Player to Watch: Fr. F Juhlawnei Stone 

Last Lancer preview we highlighted one of the team’s most prolific freshman. This time around a player to watch out for is big man Juhlawnei Stone. The 6-7, 230-pound Mesa, AZ native wasn’t as recognized as his teammate Taran Armstrong this season. But he is developing and coming into his own at just the right time, March.

Stone backs up starter Daniel Akin. But, when he finds his way onto the court he makes it count. In California Baptist’s opening round win, Stone logged just 16 minutes. But it was an efficient 16 minutes. Stone scored 11 points on 5-6 field goal attempts. Like I said, the freshman’s progress from year one to year two gives this team a much needed scoring spark off the bench. Another quality outing like that on Wednesday against a “small” but quality Sam Houston frontcourt could be what’s needed to survive and advance.

No. 5 Sam Houston 18-13 (13-5, in the WAC)

Sam Houston had a tough time finding its mojo at the beginning of the season. With plenty of roster turnover in the offseason, a dominant Bearkats program in the Southland was transitioning to new territory. In short, they showed up and made life difficult for former Southland conference mates and WAC powers alike. Sam Houston has wins over Abilene Christian, Grand Canyon, New Mexico State and rival Stephen F. Austin. The Bearkats lost to Seattle and Utah Valley in conference play without a series to split.

This team is dangerous and has shown the ability to knock off anyone in the WAC on any given night. But, they’ll have to endure physically and play smart defensively (as they normally do) to survive and advance.

Player to Watch: Gr. G/F Savion Flagg

Flagg has been every bit of the player head coach Jason Hooten could have hoped for this season. Leading the Bearkats through a rough non-conference schedule and into a top-5 spot in the WAC standings challenging for the regular season title. His season long averages of 18.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG & 2.1 APG earned him First Team All-WAC and All-Newcomer Team recognitions.

The 6-7, 225-pound guard can play multiple positions on the court. And Flagg uses his size, guard skill set and athleticism to score for Sam Houston. And when the game is on the line, Flagg is on his prime. He is the player that head coach Jason Hooten relies on to make a play late in ball games. And for the most part in 2021-22- that trust had paid off.

Prediction

Wednesday night’s second round matchup should be an exciting one. Both squads have a plethora of players who can contribute to the box score every game. The last time these two programs met on the court each program was led by a particular player. And on the flip side, each side had at least five players score five points or more. The supporting cast around Flagg needs to show up for the Bearkats to make a run in the tournament. Meanwhile, the Lancers need to find the energy to keep going after last night’s thriller.

Sam Houston State 75, California Baptist 65

Tip-off for this WAC Vegas 1st round matchup is at 6:00 PST/7:00 MT/8:00 CT and can streamed on ESPN+. The winner of this opening round affair will advance to game 5 on Thursday to face No. 4 seed Grand Canyon. Which, is also set for a 6:00 PM PST start.

Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.

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