By Owen Kaelble | @OwenKaelble
Sports Capital Journalism Program, IUPUI
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Led by a red-hot John Walker III in the second half, the Texas Southern Tigers roared back to defeat the Mount Saint Mary’s Mountaineers 60-52 for their first NCAA tournament win in three years. Texas Southern (17-8) advanced to the first round and a date with No. 1 seed Michigan on Saturday.
Walker, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, scored 13 of his 19 points in the second half, highlighted by a 6-0 run just after halftime. After being down 10 at halftime, Walker scored on three straight layups, battling in the paint for two crucial offensive rebounds, to quickly cut the lead to four in less than two minutes.
He adding two layups down the stretch to keep the Mountaineers at bay and give the Tigers their second First Four victory. Mount Saint Mary’s (12-11) was able to claw back within two with 3:11 left, but the Tigers were near perfect at the line in the closing minutes to ice it. Damian Chong Qui of Mount Saint Mary’s scored 14 points.
“I’m Houston to the bone,” Walker said, “and this is the biggest thing in the world to me.”
Walker, a Texas native, grew up in Houston where Texas Southern is located, but was not originally a Tiger. He began his career in 2018-19 at College Station with the Aggies of Texas A&M, averaging 3.2 points and 2.4 rebounds in one season. Following the season, he transferred to Texas Southern but suffered a mid-season injury, which hampered him the rest of the way.
This season, everything finally clicked for Walker, as he averaged 12 points a game, 5.4 rebounds and had a total of 26 blocks.
He is one of several influential transfers in the starting lineup. Senior guard Michael Weathers transferred from Oklahoma State. Junior forward Joirdon Karl Nicholas transferred from Stephen F. Austin. Senior forward Galen Alexander transferred from Georgetown. And junior guard Jordan Gilliam transferred from UC Riverside.
The roster came together this season to create a team that led the Southwestern Athletic Conference in scoring, averaging 74.8 points per game, and fifth in the conference in defense, allowing 69.7 points per game. The team is led by Weathers, who averages 16.5 points to lead the team and also leads in assists with an average of 3.5.
The SWAC’s leading offense rebounded in the second half after a shaky first period where the Tigers could not find any success in the paint and had to rely on mid-range jumpers. For Mount Saint Mary’s, the Defensive Player of the Year in the Northeast Conference, Nana Opoku, played a big role in limiting the Tigers scoring, notching two blocks in the first half.
For the following 20 minutes, thanks to Walker and a much improved perimeter shooting game that produced four 3-pointers, the Tigers were able to outscore the Mountaineers, 40-22. Texas Southern relied on a defense that caused multiple turnovers and completely shut down Mount Saint Mary’s, allowing only six field goals in the final 20 minutes.
“I don’t think we did a great job in the first half,” said Texas Southern coach Johnny Jones, who earned his first NCAA tournament victory as a head coach. “I thought we allowed them to really control the tempo. Both ends of the floor we had kind of gotten in the rhythm of walking the ball up. When they had the pace, that’s what they wanted to do. I thought defensively for us we allowed them to dictate how we were playing.
“In the second half I thought it was the exact opposite,” Jones went on. “I thought defensively we were very aggressive, forced them out of their offensive rhythm. We trapped, we didn’t allow them to run anything, they were taking late shots into the clock, missing shots and we were able to go back on the other end and convert. We were much more aggressive on the offensive end than we were in the first half.”
Walker summed up the win in a few words.
“I feel like I’m on top of the world right now, not gonna lie,” he said.