UCA makes program history with Southland Conference tourney win
The Bears earn their first Southland Basketball Tournament win in program history
KATY, TX – With its season starting to slip away, Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell called a timeout to regroup his team. Facing a nine-point deficit and a Lamar University team building momentum, Pennell used the respite to help the Bears regain focus, a task his squad accomplished well enough to extend their stay in the Southland Conference men’s basketball tournament.
Behind a defense that held the Cardinals to one field goal in the final nine minutes, Central Arkansas pushed past Lamar 67-57 on Wednesday night, earning the seventh-seeded Bears (17-15) a Thursday night date against third-seed Stephen F. Austin.
“You could see they weren’t ready to go home yet,” said Pennell of his team during the time out after the Bears well behind 48-39 with 13:24 remaining. “Last year when we were here, I thought we were just glad to be here. I felt (Tuesday) after practice there was a different feel about this team because these guys, especially Mathieu (Kamba) and Jordan (Howard), fully intended to win this first game.”
Critical to the first round win was a defensive effort that collapsed upon the sixth-seeded Cardinals (19-13), who went nearly eight minutes without a point after Zjori Bosha’s three-pointer gave them their final lead of the night at 55-52 with 9:02 left. Time and again, the Bears were able to neutralize Lamar’s potent interior combo of SLC first-teamer Colton Weisbrod and Josh Nzaekor.
Nzaekor scored a team-high 23 points yet failed to record a field goal in the final 13:45. Weisbrod, who was held scoreless in a first half that saw him play only nine minutes due to foul trouble, finished with only five points while attempting just three field goals.
“It was a complete team effort. We played together and sunk in on the bigs,” said Howard, the Southland Player of the Year who finished with a game-high 26 points. “We just played desperate and when we play that way, we get a lot of stops.”
Trailing 33-31 at halftime, the Cardinals erupted for a 17-6 run that was highlighted by a vicious dunk from Nzeakor and a driving layup from Weisbrod that gave Lamar a 48-39 edge with 13:22 left. Un-phased, the Bears used a spurt of their own, hitting the Cards with an 11-2 run that Howard capped with a layup that tied the score at 50-50 with 10:03 left.
Bears freshman center Hayden Koval delivered the decisive sequence as the seven-footer hit a three-pointer from the top of the key that tied the score at 55 before Matthew Mondesir’s basket gave Central Arkansas the lead for good with 6:13 left. Koval then added a tip back with 5:12 remaining that began to give the Bears needed breathing space.
“He’s another weapon in our arsenal,” Kamba (10 points, six rebounds) said of Koval, who finished with seven points and seven rebounds.
From there, Central Arkansas leaned on Howard, who made all six of his free throw attempts in the final 41 seconds to seal the deal.
“We didn’t make our stops the way we should have,” said Lamar coach Tic Price, whose team will await the prospects of a postseason tournament bid. “We lost to a better team. Central Arkansas played better than us.”