With a backcourt pairing that’s averaging nearly as many points per game as some Southland Conference starting fives, the Sam Houston Bearkats have raced out to an early advantage in the league’s regular-season title hunt.

Last week, Bearkat guards Zach Nutall and Demarkus Lampley were listed among the five-most impactful scoring duos in the country by NCAA.com. They lived up to this billing over the weekend, pouring in a combined 53 points to lead Sam Houston to an 87-80 win over Houston Baptist.

The victory marked the eighth straight for the Bearkats, who improved to a Southland-best 5-0 in conference play ahead of Wednesday’s showdown with fellow undefeated Abilene Christian. It also served as perhaps the most dominant showing yet from a pair of teammates that appear to be only scratching the surface of their potential.

“They're a top-five backcourt duo right now, and it's well-deserved,” Sam Houston head coach Jason Hooten said. “The biggest thing is Demarkus has really stepped his game up. Right now we have two guys that we can go to, and I think every team in the country would like that feeling. I can't say enough about both of them. I'm going to continue to push them to be better leaders and get these young guys ready to play.”

As the only returning first-team all-conference selection in the Southland, it has long been apparent that Nutall — who became the 26th Bearkat to surpass 1,000 career points on Saturday — would play a leading role for a team that lost over 60% of its scoring from last season. What wasn’t so certain, up until recent weeks, was who — if anyone — would emerge as a second go-to scoring option.

Lampley showed early-season flashes of being the offensive weapon that was the second-leading junior college scorer in the country two years, but as a result of a pair of four-point outings, was averaging just over 10 points through the first eight games of the season. This inconsistency has been replaced by stability, however, over the course of Sam Houston’s current winning streak.

Starting with a 21-point outburst against Rice on Dec. 19, Lampley has scored in double-figures during each of the past eight games, finishing with at least 20 points — including a career-high 27 against Nicholls — on five occasions. The senior’s 21.6 points per game in league play is the best in the Southland, with Nutall — who leads the conference in overall scoring for the season at 20.4 points per game — ranking third.

What’s at the center of Lampley’s transformation from key role player to elite scoring threat? Ask either guard, and they’ll point to the defensive end of the court.

“What really got my scoring going was my defense,” Lampley said. “I've been going up against the best players every game. Getting steals, taking charges and getting my team hyped is what really gets my scoring going.”

“He can really play defense,” Nutall added. “We put him on (Davion) Buster from Lamar, and we put on the young freshman Za-Ontay Boothman (from Houston Baptist). He defends well, and his defense turns into offense. When he gets on defense and I fire him up for a good defensive play, he comes down the court and can do anything on offense.”

Nutall, who led Sam Houston with 15.4 points per game last season, has evolved his game on both ends of the court as well. He’s currently leading the Bearkats in rebounds at nearly six per game, while boosting his scoring average by five points.

The Bryan native attributes his success, particularly on the offensive end, to the team’s overall depth.

“We have great screeners and great bigs that rebound the ball and kick it out,” Nutall said. “Everybody is a shooter on offense. When it's like that and I drive to the basket, you can't really help off Demarkus, Donte (Powers), Bryce (Monroe) or Jarren (Cook), so sometimes it's one-on-one or one-on-two. And I can get one or two all the time.”

Lampley echoes his teammates’ sentiment.

“We have a lot of guys that know their roles and a lot of guys stepping up to make big plays for this team,” he said. “We come into practice focused every day. Coach gets on us every day saying, 'Focus, focus, focus,' because he knows what it takes to win a championship — and that's what we're trying to do.”

The Bearkats’ will face their most notable hurdle yet in this championship pursuit on Wednesday, with second-place Abilene Christian coming to town. Tipoff is scheduled for approximately 8:30 p.m. at Johnson Coliseum, following the women’s game earlier that evening.

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