Bearkats stand tall against WKU

Jan. 10—HUNTSVILLE — Needing a staple win Sam Houston saw one of its veterans leaders step up.

Senior guard Jaden Ray powered through Western Kentucky defenders for a layup that gave the Bearkats the lead for the final time.

With three seconds remaining, Sam Houston junior guard Marcus Boykin iced the game with his two free throws to make it a four-point game.

Sam Houston protected its home court to start Conference USA play with its 78-74 win over Western Kentucky.

"JD is a guy I trust to make a winning play because he has done it for years," Sam Houston head coach Chris Mudge said. "He is just a winner. To have a guy who can come down on this end and make an incredible shot like he did and then play great defense is a luxury as a coach. I'm proud of this team and how we stuck together."

Ray has been a perineal player for Sam Houston over the last two years but had a knee injury sidelined him for most of the season last year.

With a return as a starter this year, Ray has made a comeback. Against WKU it felt like his full-fledged return. The senior had the go-ahead basket, along with a big three-pointer that gave the Kats the lead back with 1:48 remaining.

Sam Houston has now knocked off two of the expected top teams in the conference in the first two games.

"I think it continues to help out guys believe that we can be at the top," Mudge said. "We've felt it in the locker room, but we don't know this conference. We are learning that we can compete with the best. LA Tech and Western Kentucky are very good basketball teams. We are showing what we believe to everybody else. I think it helps foster our guys to buy into the system and do what it takes to win."

Buying into the system is what it is about this season for the Bearkats. Mudge, who is in his first year, took over the team in April and has since been the head man. With a tough non-conference schedule, the team found success in spurts, but not consistently.

The biggest thing was having guys learn their specific roles. That came together against LA Tech but really clicked against WKU where guys knew their roles from the bench.

Boykin was a big part of that.

Through 17 games this season, he has yet to make a start but he thrived off the bench. He logged 28 minutes of gameplay against the Toppers and set a new career-high in points with 17.

"We are starting to learn each other. We have seven new guys on the team and everybody is starting to figure out their roles," Ray said. "That is what will make us good when everybody buys into their roles."

As the guys are starting to find themselves on the court, Sam Houston had a bigger thing to celebrate after the win over WKU. For 40 minutes, Sam Houston was tough, physical and never took their foot off the gas against a bigger team.

Several occasions could have led to the Kats giving in to the Hilltoppers' power and stature but they never caved for the entire 40 minutes as WKU's biggest lead was five in the first half.

Doing this proved the win against WKU was huge for this Bearkat squad. The Toppers powered teams down and won their last four games by eight points, and tried to do that against the Kats too. The Hilltoppers' took the lead at the 3:12 mark of the second half and retook the lead with under a minute to go.

"It was a lot of toughness. Western Kentucky was a big and physical team; our guys did it for 40 minutes, which is hard," Mudge said. "I think our guys are in shape and are tough. They are showing their mental and physical toughness. There were times if they let up, Western Kentucky was going to go on a run. I love seeing us battle the whole time."

Sam Houston has officially started CUSA play with a 2-0 record. The two teams they have beaten are ranked the second and fourth highest in CUSA on the Kenpom rankings and we picked to finish atop the CUSA preseason standings.

Now, Sam Houston will hit the road for the first road contest since Dec. 28. The Bearkats will travel and face Middle Tennessee, who is the ninth-ranked Kenpom team in CUSA. But it will serve as a tough road test. Sam Houston and the Blue Raiders are scheduled to tipoff at 5 p.m. in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The game will be broadcast on the ESPN+ platform.