NEW ORLEANS (AP)—Tweety Carter and Ashton Mitchell both got what they wanted: a trip home to play in the NCAA tournament.
The bliss won’t last much longer for one of them, though.
Friends since their youth basketball days in the New Orleans area, the senior point guards go head-to-head Thursday when Carter’s fourth-seeded Baylor Bears (25-7) and Mitchell’s 14th-seed Sam Houston State Bearkats (25-7) meet in what will be the final game for one of them.
“I really didn’t think I would ever get this opportunity again to play in front of my hometown after Katrina and everything,” Mitchell said. “I have a tough defensive task on hand, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Although Mitchell and Carter have never met on the court in college, they are quite familiar with each other’s games.
Carter made a national name for himself while starring at Reserve Christian High School, just west of New Orleans. He was a prolific scorer, once putting up 74 points in a game.
Mitchell grew up on the west bank of the Mississippi River, just a short car ride from downtown, and went to St. Augustine, the same private school as former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson.
Although the area where Mitchell grew up was spared the devastating floods during Hurricane Katrina, St. Augustine was not. Having evacuated to Austin, Texas, with family shortly before the storm, Mitchell wound up staying there for his senior year of high school before heading to Sam Houston.
“He obviously came to Texas because of Katrina. We were able to keep him there,” Sam Houston coach Bob Marlin said. “I told his mother last night at dinner that I appreciate her letting us borrow her son, and we brought him back home and brought him here to practice today with a police escort. That’s a pretty nice return.”
Carter was not uprooted by the storm, but wanted to experience something new in college, and found it at Baylor.
“I wanted to get away and really focus on basketball,” Carter said. “Baylor was a perfect opportunity for me to be a part of something special and change a program.”
When Carter arrived at Baylor, the program was still stinging from a 2003 scandal involving the death of Patrick Dennehy, who was slain by a former teammate. During an investigation, then-coach Dave Bliss sought to cover up that he’d paid a portion of Dennehy’s tuition. According to taped conversations turned over to authorities, Bliss asked players and an assistant coach to lie to investigators by saying Dennehy paid his tuition by dealing drugs.
Baylor’s punishment included a reduced schedule in 2005-06 and NCAA probation through 2010.
With probation ending in June, Baylor’s reputation appears all but rehabilitated.
“This is our third straight 20-win season, third straight postseason,” coach Scott Drew said, referring to the Bears’ NIT appearance last year and NCAA trip two seasons ago. “It’s a situation now I think we’re more viewed for the academic and athletic successes we’ve had in recent history.”
Baylor hadn’t had a ton of success in its entire history. The Bears haven’t won a tournament game since beating BYU in 1950. After that, they were a once-in-a-generation tournament team, making it in 1988 and 2008 before returning again this year.
Much credit for their recent success goes to Carter, who has averaged 15.7 points and 6.1 assists this season. Carter can still score in bunches, but has made more of a practice of feeding the ball to shooting guard Lacedarius Dunn (19.4 ppg) and center Ekpe Udoh (13.9).
“Any time you have guys like that, you want to play through them,” Carter said. “In order to find success, sometimes you have to give things up. Scoring, if they need me to score, I’ll score. If they need me to facilitate, I’ll do that.”
Against a good perimeter-shooting team like Sam Houston, which hit 18 3s in a 102-92 loss at Kentucky, Carter will be tested defensively. Corey Allmond hit a team-high 94 3s this season, followed by Mitchell’s 52.
The stands are sure to be filled with locals transfixed by the Carter-Mitchell matchup.
“It’s great to be back home and to play in front of my home fans,” Carter said, “but we’ve also got to know that we came up here to take care of business.”
Sam Houston players and coaches spent Tuesday night in the Nicholson Playground gym—where Mitchell played as a child—having dinner with Mitchell’s family, friends and former coaches.
“It’s a feel-good story for him,” Marlin said. “I brought him in the office earlier in the year and dangled that carrot in front of him—that (there were) first- and second-round games in New Orleans, and there is a good chance we could go there or Oklahoma City just for geographical reasons. And if we are fortunate to get it done, it may happen.”
It did. And who knows? Maybe Sam Houston’s first NCAA tournament win is next.