Jim Harris – Halftime Challenge Fuels Little Rock Trojans To Title


Yes, ‘Little Rock’s Team’ Will Head to the Big Dance 

NEW ORLEANS — For anyone lucky enough, or maybe unlucky enough, to be down in the bowels of Lakefront Arena during halftime, they were introduced to the Chris Beard seldom seen on the bench for the Little Rock Trojans. You couldn’t hear him on Bourbon Street, but it might have been close.

For P.C. purposes, let’s just say the head coach wasn’t pleased with the team’s performance in the first half in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game.

“I didn’t like our effort out there, I didn’t like our body language in the dressing room,” Beard said later, right after he’d described his halftime discussion and when to take such a tack: “There is a fine like between being easy on the players and taking the other approach and challenging their manhood. Bottom line, a coach is there to help your players.”

If a coach doesn’t have his players’ respect, such blistering falls on mostly deaf or uncaring ears. Not with Beard’s team, which is now 29-4 after meeting his challenge and outscoring Louisiana-Monroe 42-17 in the second half, wiping out a five-point halftime deficit, and winning its way into the NCAA Tournament with a dominating 70-50 win Sunday afternoon.

Senior forward Roger Woods, who was giving up six inches or more to ULM’s Majok Deng (and probably a couple of feet of arm reach) on the Trojans’ offensive end, continually drove on him and anyone else who dared take him on in the last 20 minutes, scoring 15 of his game high 19 points to earn Most Outstanding Player in the tournament. Woods did it on both ends, with 9 rebounds and 3 steals, a couple that he took the distance for baskets.

“I was just doing whatever I had to help my team,” was about all the media could get out of Woods in the post-game interviews. That included asking him what he might had done differently after struggling against Deng’s length in two regular-season matchups.

Without the spark of the aggressive Jalen Jackson, the first sub off the Trojans bench and who deserved a spot on the all-tournament team, but was left off — the Little Rock Trojans would not have beaten Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, and Jackson had 7 straight points early in the second half Sunday as Little Rock began to pull out to a double-digit lead.

“Coach was just trying to motivate us in the locker room,” Jackson said of the one-sided halftime talk.

Jackson, a 6-foot-6 junior college transfer who grew up in West Memphis, was as steady in the two games here as he’s been all season, scoring 25 points over the weekend. “I picked it up a little bit more here. When it gets to tournament time, it gets a little more serious, it’s do or die, you can either win or you go home.”

Beard, at the podium with his two stars of the game, leaned over to Jackson said, “It’s been serious all season, Jalen,” getting a laugh from his players and everyone else in the room.

The starting backcourt of junior Marcus Johnson Jr. and senior Josh Hagins made the all-tournament team, and Johnson brought his long-range shooting touch with him from Little Rock, hitting a pair of three-pointers to go along with some driving buckets to finish with 14 points, 7 in each half. That output was even bigger considering Hagins seemed discombobulated most of the game, much of both games actually, and scored just 5 while committing 3 turnovers. But he did change his role in the second half to driving and dishing and had 4 assists.

The unsung hero had to be junior swingman Kemy Osse, whose pair of three-pointers were dagger-like as the lead stretched past 10 points and ULM began to wilt away. Osse had 12 points, part of a 27-0 bench advantage in scoring. Monroe didn’t go deep anyway past seven players, and the UALR defensive effort on the Warhawks starters resulted in 28 percent shooting in the second half — rare was the open shot, and most of the seven makes were follow shots inside — and an 0-for-8 effort on three-point attempts.

“Yes, our plan was to take away the threes,” Jackson said. “We wanted to get underneath them and let them drive it, and that’s what we did the second half.”

ULM coach Keith Richard pointed to the lack of much inside scoring in the second half that allowed UALR to also focus on defending the three-pointer. Woods, Lis Shoshi, Mareik Isom, Daniel Green, Osse, Jackson and Marius Hill defended the paint well.

Coincidentally, Little Rock had another half, the first 20 minutes at Texas-Arlington, where the Trojans outscored the foe 42-17. There, Little Rock held on to win. This had to be the best half of the year, though, right?

“It was one of them,” Beard said. “We did it defensively as well as offensively the way we executed. Roger Woods played like a senior. It was one of our cleaner halves of basketball.”

Sun Belt regular season champions by two games over ULM and unscathed here with the top-seed target fully on their chest — how many mid-major conference regular-season champions saw their seasons crushed in league tournaments in the past week? — the Trojans now move on to the school’s fifth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, joining three of Mike Newell’s teams (1986, 1989, 1990) and Steve Shields’ miracle bunch that ran the table in the league tourney in Hot Springs to land a spot in 2011. After the walls had been literally painted blue by Beard at the half, the coach and his players were an ecstatic, celebrating bunch in there after the trophy presentation and confetti drop.

“We like to celebrate winning,” Beard said. The celebration continued elsewhere in the arena as they waited to hear of their destination this week.

little rock trojans head to big dance

All photos courtesy of Mark L. Wagner


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