It’s getting noisy over at the Pete Gallego Center again.
With seven games left on the schedule, the Sul Ross State University men’s basketball team wants to stay atop the Western Division of the American Southwest Conference. If they do, they will host the conference tournament at the end of February for the second time in three years. Junior Tristen Licon is starting to hear echoes from that 2018 ASC championship run.
“I love Alpine. We know their support is always there,” said Licon. “I just got chills thinking about it because the people who came out were great. Last year I felt like we let the community down, so being back in contention to host the tournament means a lot.”
On Jan. 23 the Lobos welcomed UT-Dallas, one of the best hoops programs in the conference over the last few seasons. Although it wasn’t their first home game of the season, it was the first one with class in session on Hancock Hill. Students, baseball, and softball players hung out in groups to taunt Comets free throw shooters, and rally the Lobos.
“It was lovely,” senior Conner Dawson remarked. “It felt like I was back two years ago playing in the championship. We're just playing hard tying to get that home court advantage in the tournament.”
Six foot, nine inch Sophomore Brayden Fry was sorely missed against several big men from the big city. With Fry out for the season with a fractured hand, 6’4” transfer forward Logan Dixon was the largest Sul Ross player on the floor. The Lobos attempted 33 three-pointers, and needed all 13 successful ones to top UT-Dallas 68-65.
“Normally we don’t shoot that many threes, but tonight we had to,” Head Coach Clif Carroll said afterwards. “Dallas is the best defensive team in the league at the rim, so we knew we were going to get some open shots at three. To get on the right side of one of those is huge for our confidence.”
Sul Ross played from behind throughout the first half, merely tying the game four times. When Licon hit a three to grab the lead at the start of the second, however, the Lobos began to take control. They never led by more than seven points down the stretch, but beat a top-notch opponent 68-65.
While Licon hit five three-pointers and Cailen Bond had four, Bond and Dixon each had successful dribble and drive buckets late in the action. The two junior transfers have been huge additions to the Sul Ross program, and Bond led all scorers last Thursday with 22 points. Dixon announced his arrival back in December with back-to-back 30-point nights at Schreiner and Trinity.
A lot has changed since 2018, although six players remain from that special squad. Seniors Conner Dawson and B.J. Hollis are still draining shots, and Licon is still grabbing sneaky rebounds and hitting everything in sight. He reached the 1,000-point mark on Jan. 25 after playing just 72 games for the Lobos dating back to 2017.
Last week’s defeat of the Comets was completely different than the UT-Dallas trip to the Gallego Center last season. Sul Ross was throttled and embarrassed in an 83-50 loss. Rock bottom came during a second half timeout in which Carroll simply sat in the middle of his players, and said nothing for a minute and a half.
“We’ve come a long way,” Dawson said last week. “We’ve been fighting hard all season.”
“Last year was not acceptable by my standards,” added Carroll. “Having losing seasons is not what we're about. Last day of the season I told them it’s my job to recruit players to go take your spot, and it’s your job to work hard over the summer and keep your spot.”
Now in his fifth season at Sul Ross, Carroll has built himself a program. Twenty players are on the current roster, although some will see little or no playing time this year. While other Lobo teams only have graduate students helping out, this is the first year the men’s basketball team has had a full time assistant coach in a long time.
“There were a lot of kids I just couldn’t turn down, so our roster is a little inflated this year,” Carroll said. “Certainly, our practices are very spirited, but the future is going to be a lot better.”