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A&M-Corpus Christi tops Northwestern State for berth

HOUSTON -- With dancing, high-fives and hugs, Texas
A&M-Corpus Christi engaged in quite a celebration after earning its
first NCAA tournament berth Sunday.

But coach Ronnie Arrow and the Islanders also spent ample time
giving thanks after their 81-78 win Sunday over Northwestern State
for the Southland Conference tournament championship.

Despite winning more than 20 games in each of the last two
seasons, the Islanders knew they didn't have a legitimate chance at
the tournament because they were independent.

The invitation to join the Southland Conference changed all
that.

"The bottom line is we're going dancing and I'm happy for our
seniors," Arrow said. "People do not understand where we have
been the last nine years. If we weren't in this conference right
now we'd be going home. We're very appreciative of the Southland
Conference inviting us in."

Chris Daniels, the conference player of the year, scored 19
points to lead Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

"This is a great feeling," Daniels said. "I think we deserve
it."

The Islanders were ahead 79-75 with 5 seconds remaining after
Taureen Mitchell made a free throw, then got a steal and found
Kevin Menifee for the layup.

As Texas A&M-Corpus Christi players jumped around and
celebrated, Luke Rogers pulled up from far beyond arc and sank a
3-pointer with 3 seconds left to make it 79-78.

The Demons were forced to foul and Josh Ervin made both free
throws to secure the Islanders' win. Northwestern had one last try
to go to the NCAAs for a second straight year, but Mitchell
intercepted a pass to end the game.

Corpus Christi never trailed, but twice saw a 13-point
second-half lead dwindle to one point.

After the game, players donned Southland Conference tournament
champion T-shirts and fans jumped around wildly and chanted "Let's
Go Dancing! Let's Go Dancing!" Some players embraced each other
and the students, while others broke into impromptu dances.

Corpus Christi was seeded 15th in the Midwest Region, where it
will face second-seeded Wisconsin on Friday.

The Islanders, who have won six straight, began playing
basketball in 1999.

"This game where we are right now is a culmination of all the
players for nine years that have come and helped us build this
program," Arrow said. "All these guys that never really had a
chance to go the NCAA tournament. We kept telling them if you win
enough games, you might. But the bottom line is if you're
independent ... it's not going to happen."

Mitchell hit a jumper with about 40 seconds left to put the
Islanders ahead 76-73, but Northwestern State answered with a
putback by Jermaine Spencer to cut the lead to one with 25 seconds
left.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi led 73-66 after a bucket by Daniels,
but a jumper by Spencer followed by a steal and dunk by Trey Gilder
made it 73-70 with 4 minutes left.

Ervin made one of two free throws to stretch Corpus Christi's
lead to 74-70.

Keenan Jones hit a 3 with about 2:40 left that got Northwestern
State within 74-73 and sent Demons fans into a frenzy.

Daniels was 7-for-8 despite being double- and sometimes
triple-teamed. The attention the 7-footer garnered often left his
teammates open for long shots. Josh Washington took advantage to
sink four 3s.

Washington finished with 16 points for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
(26-6) and Ervin added 14.

Gilder led the Demons (17-15) with 25 points and Spencer had 13.
"I'm extremely proud of our kids because there was many times
in this game when some people at home may have packed it in,"
Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy said. "But the nature of
our team is to compete until the bitter end, and that's what we did
today."

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi led by eight at halftime and was ahead
61-48 with about 12 minutes remaining after a layup by Daniels.
Then two quick fouls sent Daniels to the bench and the Demons took
advantage of his absence to outscore the Islanders 14-6 over the
next 5 minutes to get to 67-62.

Corpus Christi led by 13 points late in the first half before a
quick 3 by Gilder followed by a steal and layup by Jones cut the
lead to 44-36 at halftime.

Having made the journey from an unknown independent that once
shared an arena with a hockey team to a coveted spot in the NCAA
tournament, the Islanders aren't concerned about their next
opponent.

"I don't care where they send us," Arrow said. "I don't care
who we play, where we play. We're going to be there and we're going
to be ready."