San Antonio – His ailing foot aching after an uneventful first half Saturday night, St. Mary’s guard Lamb Autrey was ready to tell coach Jim Zeleznak his attempted comeback from a month-long absence was done.
Then, while sitting along in the corner of the locker room, he prayed.
“I had prayed because my foot was bothering me the whole time,” said Autrey, a junior from Cibolo, Texas, who hadn’t played since rolling his foot against Oklahoma Panhandle State on Jan. 13. “I just prayed and didn’t think about my foot anymore. Not at all.”
Freed mentally and emotionally, Autrey proceeded to make his individual comeback symbolic of the Rattlers’ collective comeback, as they punched their ticket to the Heartland Conference Tournament with a memorable 66-63 victory over Texas A&M International at Bill Greehey Arena.
Giving St. Mary’s just its second lead of the final six minutes, Autrey drained the go-ahead basket and eventual game-winning points with 59 seconds left, connecting on an off-balance jumper from 15 feet to take a 65-63 lead. Jeff Campbell (Jr., Allen, Texas) tacked on a free throw with 10 seconds left to make it a three-point game.
Then, on the defensive end, the wiry, long-armed Autrey closed out on Texas A&M International’s Brian Schaeffer in the corner, forcing the would-be-tying shot to fall short of the basket as time expired.
St. Mary’s forward Kevin Kotzur hauled in the air-balled shot and sent it skyward, as the Rattlers raced toward midcourt to celebrate their berth in the conference tournament.
“I’ve got to give all of this to God,” said Autrey, who scored all of his 11 points in the second half.
Texas A&M International had two shots at tying the game in the final 10 seconds, the latter of which came following an in-bounds pass with 1.8 seconds left.
St. Mary’s (15-11, 7-5 in Heartland Conference) now moves on to the conference tourney, where they are likely to be the fourth seed and will play either Texas A&M International or Texas-Permian Basin in the semifinals.
As the fourth seed, the Rattlers would play at 5 p.m. Friday at Bill Greehey Arena, with the championship round slated for 5 p.m. Saturday. The other semifinals game will be played at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
St. Mary’s entered Saturday’s game with a simple objective: Win, and they’re in. Needing to beat Texas A&M International to avoid having to go through a play-in game to advance to the tournament, the Rattlers proceeded to do exactly what they needed.
Not that it was easy.
St. Mary’s took a quick eight-point lead, but found itself trailing by five midway through the second half.
That’s when Autrey, who didn’t even attempt a shot in the first half, and the rest of the Rattlers got going.
Autrey drained a 3-pointer with 7:11 left, capping off a 7-0 run immediately after TAMIU had taken its largest lead of the night at 54-49.
Kotzur led the Rattlers with 16 points, while senior forward Gordon Ward (Galveston, Texas) scored 13 on Senior Night.