RUSTON, La. – The college basketball world is beginning to take notice of a little team in North Louisiana.
Raheem Appleby scored 16 points and No. 25 Louisiana Tech extended the nation's longest winning streak to 18 games Saturday night, clinching at least a share of its first Western Athletic Conference championship with an 88-61 victory over San Jose State.
"It was good to be able to send our seniors out with a win like that," Bulldogs coach Michael White said. "It was also good to accomplish one of our preseason goals that we started the season with and that was to finish undefeated at home. Winning a conference championship or at least a share of it was something that we set out to do for months. It's exciting, but there is still a lot left to play for over the next week."
Alex Hamilton and Jaron Johnson added 13 points apiece for the Bulldogs (26-3, 16-0 WAC), who can wrap up the outright regular-season title Thursday night with a win at New Mexico State.
It is the first conference crown for Louisiana Tech since its 1999 Sun Belt championship.
"I expected we would compete for an NCAA bid, but I didn't expect it to come this quickly," said Tech guard Brandon Gibson, who had 12 points. "Coach White pushes us so hard and you would never think kids who just got together with this coach two years ago would be doing something as special as this."
In only his second season as a head coach, White acknowledged that the program is ahead of where he expected it to be at this point.
"To be honest, I do feel like we are a little ahead of schedule," he said. "This summer preparing for the season, we thought we could compete for a conference championship. We thought we could be in the thick of things. Did I think we would be 16-0 in WAC play? No I didn't. I thought we would have to catch some breaks and I thought that the stars would have to align. So far that has happened for us. We just have to keep going and working hard."
Xavier Jones led San Jose State (9-18, 3-13) with 14 points, while D.J. Brown and Chris Cunningham each had 10.
The Spartans shot only 32 percent (17 for 53), including 5 of 17 from 3-point range.
"These guys have won a lot of games in a row and deservedly so. They really go after the ball hard. We had too many turnovers in the first half and allowed them to build their lead. (They had) 24 points off turnovers and that is just too many," San Jose State coach George Nessman said. "We need to be stronger with the ball. I understand Louisiana Tech is a good pressure team, but regardless of that we still have to handle the ball strong. We didn't do a good enough job of that, particularly in the first half."
Louisiana Tech hit seven 3-pointers in the first half and used a 16-4 run to go ahead 29-12 en route to a 45-26 halftime lead. The Bulldogs held San Jose State to 33 percent shooting from the field in the opening 20 minutes and forced 12 turnovers.
"That's always the mindset, especially when you are at home," White said. "You want to get your crowd involved in the game. Turnovers are always a big factor with us and they were again tonight. We had some guys make some plays, and our pressure defense was pretty good. It was a good team win that required contributions from a lot of guys."
Riding their sharp shooting from long range, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 10-2 lead on consecutive 3-pointers by Gibson and Appleby.
Louisiana Tech finished 10 for 29 from beyond the arc.
"They seem, to me, to not be as concerned about balance, as they want their guys playing at a certain tempo and wanting their shots going up," Nessman said. "That encourages a certain pace game. It works for them because they are able to get almost every team in our league into a tempo game and boy, are they hard to beat in a tempo game. That is a hard situation for any team and it certainly was a hard situation for us."