Sun Belt Full-Court Press: Western Kentucky 68, UALR 63

by Jim Harris  on Monday, Mar. 5, 2012 12:33 am  

UALR's Courtney Jackson (12) scores inside during first-half action against Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt Men's Tournament. UALR saw a 13-point lead slip away in a 68-63 loss to the Hilltoppers, ending the Trojans' season. (Photo by Mark Wagner)

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UALR senior guard D'Andre Williams said it's the natural tendency of a team up 13 points in the second half to "take a deep breath." Williams added, "We took a deep breath and they came back." Western Kentucky took over the game while UALR caught its breath, outscoring the Trojans 22-3 over a seven-minute stretch and beat the Trojans 68-63 on Sunday night in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament quarterfinal round in Hot Springs.

WHY UALR LOST: Maybe, as D'Andre Williams said, the Trojans momentarily relaxed after building a 53-40 lead with 8:54 to play. Shooting guard Chuck Guy was on fire for the Trojans, hitting 3's, driving for layups, or dishing off to Courtney Jackson and others for high-percentage shots inside. With their backs to the wall, the Hilltoppers turned to full-court zone pressure, and that rattled the Trojans backcourt and took Guy out of his game in the process. Guy scored on a layup with 5:51 to go, making it 56-45, but UALR didn't score again 1:05 remained and Western up 62-56. UALR made just three baskets in the final 8:54. But UALR Coach Steve Shields also pointed to WKU's big advantage on the glass (49-36), including 17 offensive rebounds, as a difference maker. The Hilltoppers' board work made up for a bad shooting game (38.2 percent). And UALR also benefitted from WKU missing 20 free throws, yet still couldn't pull out the win.

Summit Arena was the site of two of the biggest upsets in the league tourney's history. Middle Tennessee became the first No. 1 seed in the Sun Belt tourney to be ousted before the semifinal round. UALR, seeded No. 2 and West Division champion, is out too. ASU, which victimized Middle, is a ninth seed and Western Kentucky was seeded seventh. No. 3 seed Denver and fifth seed North Texas are the other teams remaining in the semifinal round, all dreaming of making the "Big Dance" now that Middle Tennessee (17-1 in the league during the season) is out.

Will Neighbour wasn't the same as a rebounder when he suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but he said two weeks ago that the injury wasn't affecting his shooting. Yet, his last two games (a 62-60 regular season finale win over ASU and Sunday's game) seemed to indicate the injury was also hurting his shooting. Against Western Kentucky, the 6-10 sophomore from England hit his first shot, a 3-pointer, and missed his next six attempts and finished with 4 points.

Western Kentucky rallied from a similar deficit at home to beat UALR earlier this season. Chuck Guy took note of that in the post-game interview in discussing Sunday night's collapse. "We were up and they just picked up their intensity, and Coach has always said we have to match their intensity. We did, but the late turnovers caused us to lose."

And senior guard D'Andre Williams said the WKU press turned the game the Hilltoppers' way. "It caused three turnovers late in the game and that was critical to the outcome ... it bothered us. They did a good job in the press."

Forward George Fant of Western said, "They [UALR] started rushing things. Early in the game, we were getting frustrated because we were getting our shots blocked, we were moving too fast, but those last six minutes they started to turn the ball over and they started speeding up and turning the ball over even more."

Fant as instrumental with two blocked shots late, and UALR senior forward Courtney Jackson, who had 11 points, couldn't get off an uncontested shot in the final minutes before fouling out.

UALR only had nine turnovers for the game, which Trojans Coach Steve Shields said was a "winnable" number. But three came almost in success against the zone pressure as WKU rallied.

Derrick Gordon was a disaster at the foul line for Western Kentucky, hitting just 6 of 14 free throws, but he did just about everything else right: 9 of 14 from the field, 25 points, and 15 total rebounds, plus two assists. He also seemed glued to UALR's Chuck Guy in the final minutes. "I don't know, it was just time to turn it up," Gordon said of WKU's late comeback. "They had a big lead on us, but every huddle we told ourselves we weren't going to stop fighting, and that's what we did. We pulled together as a group and came out with the W."

"During that stretch, we didn't handle the press like we wanted to, and I felt like we handled their press earlier when they had gone to it. The biggest concern to me coming into tonight was the rebounds. They are a great offensive rebounding team and got 19 offensive rebounds [Saturday] night. And we struggled to guard in the second half without fouling. We struggled to guard the basketball off the dribble in the second half." — UALR Coach Steve Shields

"Just when you thought it was about to get away from us, we made a run. We wouldn't quit. I thought our live ball turnovers were what was hurting us. They were turning those into buckets, and you know down the stretch our press took effect. We turned them over a little bit, got some easy buckets, but these guys, they won't quit. Somebody's going to have to beat us to send us home here in the next couple of days." — WKU Coach Ray Harper.

Western Kentucky (13-18) will play Denver in the 8:30 p.m. men's semifinal game Monday at Summit Arena in Hot Springs. Arkansas State and North Texas play in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. The winners meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday for the tourney championship. UALR ends its season at 15-16.



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