Pat Knight thinks he’s found the right place to carve out his own coaching legacy.
Mike James scored 26 points, Devon Lamb added 12 and Lamar defeated McNeese State 70-49 in the Southland Conference tournament championship on Saturday, sending Knight into the NCAA tournament for the first time as a head coach.
Lamar (23-11) will return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. And Pat Knight will take a giant step out of the formidable shadow of his father, Bob, the Hall of Fame coach who won three NCAA championships at Indiana.
Bob Knight, now a color commentator for TV, did not attend the game. Pat was eager to talk to his father on the phone later Saturday.
”He gets emotional after wins now,” Knight said. ”I look forward to talking to him. I owe him. Everything I do and I am, I learned from him.”
Pat Knight, in his first season, guided Lamar to its first 20-win campaign since 1988. The 23 victories are the most since the 1983-84 squad went 26-5.
”Greatness, no matter how brief, always sticks with people,” Knight said. ”These guys will be part of the Lamar family, and they’ll be a big part of my folklore.”
Knight is expecting a No. 15 or 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the Cardinals will be heavy underdogs in the first round. But it’s a start.
”I’ll be sitting around a bar when I’m about 65 with a bunch of old coaches, and I’ll be like, `Hey, let me tell you about this group of kids I had at Lamar,”’ he said. ”I threw them under the bus, and they went out and won six in a row and just got to the tournament.’ These guys are always going to be special to me.”
Knight was himself seeking redemption after he was fired by Texas Tech a year ago. The more he learned about Lamar, the more he thought it was a perfect fit.
It was a small program in an obscure city, and would draw unspoiled recruits overlooked by glossier programs. Lamar was also removed from the intense national spotlight that follows the big-name programs.
”This is the purest level left, and this is where I belong,” Knight said, ”because you can coach them, you can discipline them. They’re fun to watch, they’re fun to coach. I enjoy every day in practice. It’s been a joy.”
The atmosphere and makeup of the team also gave Knight confidence that the players could take some of the harsh criticism that his father was notorious for delivering.
Knight ripped his seniors after a loss to Stephen F. Austin on Feb. 22, saying they were ”stealing money by being on scholarship” and the Cardinals have won six in a row since the tirade.
”I thought they were tough enough to take it,” Knight said. ”If I had a team full of soft kids, or freshmen. If I was coaching at a big school, there’d be no way I’d get away with it. I’d have a revolt.”
Lamar’s seniors turned Knight’s comments into motivation and have won five of the last six games by double-digits.
”We know what kind of a team we have,” said guard Anthony Miles, who had eight points and five assists on Saturday. ”It’s all about leaving our legacy. That’s what Coach Knight is always saying. We said we want to be the team that brought Lamar basketball back. We stayed focused and we did it.”
Patrick Richard scored 16 points, but went 4 for 20 from the field for McNeese State (17-15).
Lamar took control of Saturday’s game late in the first half, when the Cowboys went cold to fuel a 21-2 spurt.
McNeese went nearly seven minutes without a field goal until Richard sank a straight-on 3-pointer with 2:22 left in the half. Brandon Davis swished a 3 with 48 seconds to go before halftime, and Lamar led 33-21 at the break.
The Cowboys started the second half by scoring on consecutive fast breaks. Lamar continued to smother Richard, but Dontae Cannon hit a mid-range shot and a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 35-30 just three minutes out of halftime.
James scored on a drive and swished a 3-pointer from the corner and Lamar extended the lead again. Osas Ebomwonyi, Lamar’s 6-foot-11 center, blocked a shot that triggered another fast break and James’ layup for a 44-35 Cardinals’ lead.
Ebomwonyi blocked six shots in the first 14 minutes of the second half, and James swished another 3 with 5:50 left to put Lamar up 55-39, its biggest lead to that point.
”There are a lot of positives coming out of this game,” McNeese coach Dave Simmons said. ”We’ll be back here next year. This team, I’m just as proud of them as if we had won the game.”