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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Men's Basketball

Cougars start strong, find offense in season opener

Senior guard Wes VanBeck drives to the basket at H&PE Arena during the Cougars’ 81-53 victory over McNeese State on Friday. The Cougars lost good players last year but found offensive replacement with VanBeck and sophomore guard Armoni Brooks in their season opener. | Marissa Reilly/The Cougar

The Cougars’ search for offensive replacement, after losing guard Damyen Dotson to the draft, may end early with the emergence of sophomore guard Armoni Brooks and senior guard Wes VanBeck in the season opener against McNeese State.

Brooks led the Cougars with a career-high 22 points, including 5 of 8 shooting from beyond the arc.  VanBeck followed in Brooks’ footsteps and came away with 14 points, including three 3-pointers and three rebounds. Despite playing at TSU’s basketball arena, which will continue while the Fertitta Center is built, the Cougars are poised for a good season with offensive staple Rob Gray Jr. back on the court.

Gray was absent on Friday due to an obscure NCAA rule that does not allow athletes to play or practice with other organizations.

In March, Gray decided to play in a church recreation basketball league with Second Baptist Church. The suspension was enforced due to a $5 entry fee that Gray’s friend paid for him to register for the league. He was forced to return the five dollars and serve the one game suspension, said team spokesman Jeff Conrad in an email.

The suspension might be bigger news if the Cougars didn’t take command of the game against the McNeese State, 81-53, early on.

The Cougars shot 56.9 percent from the field in the game, including a blistering 18 of 26 in the first half while holding the Cowboys to only 29.3 percent on the floor.

“We are going to be a lot better a month or two from now, but it’s a good start,” said head coach Kelvin Sampson after the win. “Our defense was really good. In the second half, we held them to 19 points. I’d like our pace to be faster. The reason our defense was better against Angelo State was because we rebounded better.”

With the victory, the Cougars will now head to Lynchburg, Virginia to compete in the Paradise Jam from Nov. 17 to 19. They will have last year’s American Athletic Conference-leading scorer in Gray on hand this time to lead the team but still need to make up points from the 3-point line with the loss of Damyean Dotson to the NBA.

Dotson ranked among the nation’s top 10 leaders in 3-point field goal percentage with 44.3 percent and 3-point field goals made per game with 3.38.

Brooks and VanBeck seem ready to make up for some of the production left by Dotson. They combined for eight 3-pointers and looked comfortable from the line all night against McNeese State.

“We are looking to move the ball and let the ball find the shooter,” VanBeck said. “It’s not necessarily guys looking for me or Armoni. We move the ball around a few times, and eventually someone is going to be open. Coach always preaches about moving the ball, so that’s what we try to do.”

Although the Cougars have a young team and few expectations, Gray still thinks this team has the potential to make an impact.

“A successful season for us is making it into the NCAA Tournament,” Gray said. “Nothing else matters but winning and staying relevant this season.”

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