AUSTIN, Texas – Like any coach, Rattlers head man Jim Zeleznak constantly preaches the importance of protecting the basketball.

And on Thursday, his squad showed what can happen when it follows through on that simple – at least, in theory – directive.

Committing just three turnovers all night, St. Mary’s opened up Heartland Conference play in style, cruising past St. Edward’s 87-74 in a near mistake-free showing.

Center Kevin Kotzur (Jr., La Vernia, Texas) posted a game-high 22 points, while forward Ray Marshall (Sr., El Paso, Texas) also found success inside, scoring a season-high 17 as St. Mary’s outscored St. Edward’s 44-24 in the paint.

But while the Rattlers (7-4, 1-0 in Heartland Conference) had their way down low, the real story was how they protected the basketball. Winning the turnover battle 13-3, St. Mary’s also took the points-off-turnovers battle, 20-1, to help erase a 39-36 halftime deficit.

Having actually taken a 10-point lead with nearly six minutes left after trailing at the break, St. Mary’s saw its own lead dwindle, as St. Edward’s went on a tear to trim St. Mary’s lead to 70-67 with 4:10 remaining.

But Moses Sundufu (Jr., Hopkins, Minn.) drained a 3-pointer that launched the Rattlers’ own hot streak, as they went on a 17-4 run to take a 87-71 lead into the final seconds.

Point guard Lamb Autrey sizzled with 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting, while also connecting on all eight free-throw attempts to help the Rattlers shoot toward first place on the opening night of conference play.

Sundufu added nine points, while Shavon Scott (Milwaukee) added a career-high eight off the bench. Coming off a career performance in which he scored 19 off the bench in a victory over Cardinal Stritch, Isaiah Matthews (Fr., Texas City, Texas) had seven points in 12 minutes.

St. Mary’s will travel to Odessa, Texas to take on Texas-Permian Basin at 12 p.m. Saturday.

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