Jim Harris: Sun Belt Semifinals Have Much To Live Up To After Saturday’s Wild Finishes

HOT SPRINGS — With Bobby Petrino looking on — yes, Bobby Petrino, in the Spa City, watching a game featuring his new employer’s basketball — Western Kentucky stole a victory from South Alabama in the final 24 seconds.

Yet the wild turnaround, in which the Hilltoppers ousted the higher-seeded South Alabama 62-59, didn’t match the way Arkansas State nearly gave away its trip to Sunday’s semifinal round.

A four-point lead with 10 seconds to play is generally safe for most teams, but not for A-State on Saturday night.

The Red Wolves, after the gritty Ed Townsel had given them a two-possession lead with a free throw, gave up the obligatory uncontested layup to Troy’s Antoine Myers with six seconds left. Then the Red Wolves, having used their last timeout between Townsel’s free throw attempts, couldn’t beat the official’s quick five-second call on the inbounds play, turning it back over to Troy. Emil Jones went directly to the block on the lane for a short floater that tied the game at 57 with 2 seconds left.

Townsel and the Red Wolves wouldn’t be denied in overtime, however. Townsel scored six of his team-leading 18 points in the extra period. Guard Marcus Hooten, dealing with a stiff back that sidelined him late in the game, returned for a 12-foot pull-up with a minute to play for a 64-61 lead. Rakeem Dickerson scored on a layup with 20 seconds left, Hooten hit a foul shot at :07 for a 68-61 edge, and the Red Wolves weren’t letting the lead get away this time, winning 68-63 at Summit Arena.

Less than an hour earlier on the intimate Convention Center court next to Summit Arena, Western Kentucky seemingly had let its best chance to win slip away and was forced to pressure and foul South Alabama with 0:24.7 showing.

Only, Jamal Crook took matters into his own hands without fouling. He hounded USA’s Barrington Stevens III in the backcourt foul lane, knocked the ball away with his right hand, controlled it with his left, returned it into his right hand as he acrobatically angled to the basket and put the right amount of English on a layup that barely reached the backboard square.

The shot put WKU up 60-59. A distraught Stevens wouldn’t touch the ball again until USA was down 62-59, following another frantic turnover near midcourt and a foul. In the game’s final 6 seconds, Stevens let fire from well beyond the key with a 3-point attempt to tie that rimmed out.

USA retained possession when the rebound was knocked out with five-tenths of a second left, and the Jaguars miraculous managed a 3-point attempt from the Sun Belt’s best player, Augustin Rubit. Rubit leaped just left of the key, and in one motion caught the ball and shot — the attempt hit the rim twice and fell off.

That’s how close these teams are seeing their seasons continue or end so suddenly. That’s what makes watching basketball at the Summit Arena so much fun this weekend — the last trip into Hot Springs in a five-year run for the Sun Belt post-season tournament.

It’s March Madness, in full swing. The pressure overcomes the favored teams, leading to first-half performances like we saw Saturday from Arkansas State, when the Red Wolves couldn’t manage a point-a-minute pace and trailed 20-game loser Troy 26-18.

Troy players knew the next Trojan loss would be longtime coach Don Maestri’s last game; he got his 500th win on Friday when Troy eked out a last-second win over Florida Atlantic and coach Mike Jarvis.

March Madness also fuels the desperation seen in Arkansas State in the second half. Sensing that any post-season, not just the Sun Belt’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament but maybe that desired NIT game with Arkansas, might be in jeopardy with a staggering finish to its season, the Red Wolves turned it on right out of the dressing room with a 10-0 run to take the lead.

A-State kept thinking the Trojans would go away, but they wouldn’t, continuously answering until finally running out of heroics in overtime.

Men’s tourney favorite Middle Tennessee didn’t need any magic in disposing of Louisiana-Lafayette for its 20th straight win. Middle (28-4 overall) hasn’t lost since dropping a 66-60 game in overtime at Arkansas State on Jan. 3.

ASU is hoping to get a third shot at Middle — the Blue Raiders took down the Red Wolves by 13 in the rematch in Murfreesboro, Tenn., last month — but would be foolish to look past Western Kentucky, which, like last year, is on a late-season role.

Western was the unheralded seventh seed a year ago and, helped by ASU’s quarterfinal upset of top-seed Middle Tennessee, ran the table to get the automatic bid to the NCAA’s.

The Hilltoppers appear to be on the same track, the way they pulled victory out of the fire against a decent South Alabama squad, which finished second to Middle Tennessee in league wins with 14.

Middle Tennessee avoided a repeat of last year’s quarterfinal upset exit, but the Blue Raiders are not home free to the final either, not with the way Richard Pitino’s Florida International squad can press and shoot the ball.

Malik Smith scorched UALR with five 3-pointers in the first half and FIU sprinted to a 31-16 first-half lead. UALR would climb back to within five, 40-35, with more than 10 minutes remain, but its problems handling the Golden Panthers press never went away. Back-to-back layups, one off a backcourt steal, put FIU back in control at 44-35 and the Panthers never had another worry. Smith was scoreless for a long stretch while UALR climbed back in, thanks to Leroy Isler’s defense denying Smith an open look, but once the FIU press took over again, so did Smith — he hit three more 3’s for an 8-for-10 night.

Young UALR, with no seniors except for walk-on Ted Crass, went down 69-54. The Trojans struggled down the stretch this season as junior forward Will Neighbour dealt with illness a couple of times.

UALR did manage a regular season-ending win at home against A-State, as Red Wolves forward Brandon Peterson was ineffective that night, suffering a scratched eyeball.

The ASU senior was fine Saturday, joining post Kendrick Washington to carry the Red Wolves in the first half while the guards managed just one basket. Peterson finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds, including 7 offensive boards.

“I didn’t realize he had those kind of numbers,” ASU Coach John Brady said. “I’ve liked him ever since we signed him. He started by the 11th or 12th game of his freshman year … He competes and he’s tough. He gets everything out of the talent he has… Those guys click with me.”

Sixth-man Townsel, vastly improved from a difficult sophomore transfer season as a point guard by being moved to a shooting guard spot, hit 5 of 9 field goals, including 3 of 6 beyond the 3-point arc. His shooting eye was crucial on a night when the starting guards — Hooten, Cameron Golden and Trey Finn — were a combined 5 of 27 shooting and 1 for 15 on 3’s.

Brady implored his team to rediscover what led to winning 18 games in the regular season, and that was by attacking and getting to the foul line rather than trying to shoot its way back in it. He noted that ASU “crushed” Troy on the glass to the tune of 47-29, including 13 offensive rebounds.

Townsel said, “The week off kind of hurt us. But in the second half we picked it up and hit a few shots down the stretch.”

ASU plays Western Kentucky at approximately 9 p.m., following the Middle Tennessee-FIU game, which tips at 6:30 p.m.

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