John Royal Zamal Nixon works the offense in the second half against Tulane
The Cougars appeared to be cruising to an easy victory over Tulane. The victory would be their first after five straight losses, and if they were going to have any chance of getting to the conference tournament, then they were going to need a win sometime soon. And playing perhaps their best complete game of the season, the Cougars were in a seemingly prime position to clinch the win.
Yet while the Cougars were up by double digits, Dickey was upset by Nixon's attempted play with McNeil because he sensed a sloppiness to the offense. With the clock ticking slowly toward zero, he wanted the ball in the hands of only one player, Nixon. He didn't want Nixon passing it off. He didn't want Nixon trying to get cute with the ball. He wanted Nixon running the offense, driving the lane, getting to the free-throw line.
And when Nixon tried that alley-oop pass to McNeil, Dickey's first instinct was to put Nixon on the bench and entrust the game to one of his other guards. But Dickey ignored his gut and stuck with Nixon, and the non-move worked as Nixon proceeded to go the free-throw line four times in the last 1:52 of the game and hit all eight of his shots from the charity stripe as the Cougars got the 79-68 win to improve their record to 12-11 (4-6 in conference).
"He was terrific," Dickey said of Nixon's play down the stretch. "I just told [guards] Nick [Haywood] and Adam [Brown] to get the ball to him against the press because they were going to have to foul. Percentagewise, he's our best free-throw shooter, and he's made big shots for us all year at the free-throw line. And we wanted the ball in his hands. That's what we wanted."
A look at the score makes this appear to be an easy win, but it was one which saw the Cougars fall behind 8-0 at the start before going on a big run that had them up 37-20 with 4:03 left in the first half. But Tulane would not let the game slip away and grabbed the momentum from the Cougars as they went on a 11-2 run to get the score to 39-31 with just under a minute in the half and the chance to get closer after a missed three point attempt from Adam Brown. Then Nixon made one of his four steals on the game, got the ball to Alandise Harris and Harris found McNeil for the lay-up off of the fast break to make the score 41-31 at the half.
"We actually came out kind of sluggish," Nixon said. "We got down early in the game. The biggest thing was just keeping our composure, not hanging our heads down. We did a good job in there. We got the ball inside. [McNeil] did a good job of making the best of opportunities when he got the touches. When we got the lead, we just wanted to keep building on it, which is what we did."
John Royal Adam Brown makes a move for the bucket
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"It's definitely a great feeling to get back on the winning track," Nixon said. "All of the five games that we lost [two in overtime], those are games that we've been in, so we know that we have a pretty decent team. It just comes down to executing and doing little things down the stretch. It's good to finally get in the win column. We can't celebrate too much. We can't get complacent. There's a lot of conference left. We just need to take the positive from what we did and get ready for SMU on Wednesday."
The Cougars can't afford to get complacent. There are only six games remaining in conference play, and four of those games are against some of the elite teams in C-USA -- SMU, UTEP, Memphis and UAB. And besides that, the last time the Cougars got complacent, which Nixon says happened after they won three of their first four conference games, they went into the tailspin that resulted in five straight losses.
But that losing streak is now behind them. Ahead of them lies the rest of the season, starting on Wednesday when they host SMU at Hofheinz Pavilion.
SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Maurice McNeil finished the game with 15 points and 11 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season...The Cougars had five players finish with double figures in scoring, led by Zamal Nixon's 17, then McNeil's 15, Alandise Harris with 11, and Adam Brown and Kendrick Washington, both with 10.