Jim Harris – Trojans Within 40 minutes of Fifth NCAA Tourney Bid


No Easy Path To NCAA Tourney for Little Rock Trojans

New Orleans – Sunday’s Sun Belt conference championship game will pit Little Rock and its terrific backcourt and depth against Louisiana-Monroe’s intimidating length along its front line. The teams have split two games this season, but ULM’s Warhawks have played Little Rock tougher both at home and at the Jack Stephens Center than any other team in the Sun Belt this season.

ULM was a couple of tip-in tries at the buzzer at The Jack from ultimately taking a sweep from the Trojans. In Monroe, the Warhawks were one of the rare teams this year that Little Rock found hard to defend in an 88-84 ULM victory. That Trojans survival at home was by a 58-57 count but tried to find a way to give the game to the Warhawks in the final minute, nearly blowing a five-point lead.

All this is to say that Little Rock’s path to the NCAA Tournament is still treacherous. They’ve talked about having enough of a cushion thanks to strength of schedule and 28-4 record to slip in even if they slip here in the final, but the selection committee has the final say on that. On the other hand, though, ULM has only one way into “The Dance” and that’s to win Sunday’s rubber match.

The good fan base that has followed Little Rock’s men’s and women’s teams hope Saturday night wasn’t an omen. The second-seeded Trojan women mishandled the last 35 seconds of the championship game against upstart, fourth-seeded Troy and lost 61-60. A 17-4 run to start the second half for a 10-point lead didn’t last long for Joe Foley’s team, and Troy wouldn’t go away, not down 10 and not down 5 in the final 3 minutes.

Troy was a surprise in making the women’s final, beating South Alabama for the first time after two losses this season in the first round, shocking Arkansas State 96-89 in Friday’s semifinal, and then breaking Little Rock’s heart with Ashley Beverley Kelley’s pull-up jumper inside the foul circle with 21 seconds left, and hulky Caitlyn Ramirez’s block of Mo Townson’s driving shot before the buzzer.

The men’s final is no surprise, it’s played to chalk with the top two seeds advancing. ULM was impressive for 30 of the 40 minutes in dispatching Texas-Arlington, the preseason pick to win the league, 82-71, following Little Rock’s 72-65 survival against Louisiana-Lafayette. Both winners managed their third wins over their semifinal foes, yet another fact worth noting in showing how strong these teams were.

“Monroe hasn’t lost in, well, it seems since last year,” Trojans head coach Chris Beard said. Actually, the Warhawks last fell on Feb. 2 at Lafayette to the Ragin’ Cajuns. They’ve since won 11 straight.

Lafayette’s Shawn Long, who scored 25 points against Little Rock and led the Cajuns’ rally from 10 down to tie the game twice, at 38 and 40 with 12 minutes to play, was the key focus inside for the Trojans. Sunday, Little Rock will have to contend with the miniature Manute Bol-like Majok Deng (6-10) and the even skinner-legged 6-9 Jamaal Samuel, plus 6-7 swingman DeMondre Harvey, who’s 21 points led five Warhawks players in double figures against UTA. Deng had 18; at The Jack back in January, it was Deng who strangely tried to shoot a three-pointer instead of driving in the closing seconds down 1, and it was 5-11 guard Nick Coppola who somehow was under the basket trying to tip in the game-winner.

Like that example, Coach Keith Richard’s Warhawks defy the typical description of a good but not great college basketball team. As he pointed out Saturday, ULM managed to blow a 13-point lead in the final 90 seconds to Canisius in an eventual overtime loss in a Las Vegas holiday tournament.

On Saturday, “I thought for 30 minutes we played well,” Richard said, excluding the first five minutes where the Warhawks couldn’t buy a basket, and the last five where they sloppily frittered a lead that was still too large for UTA to overcome.

Little Rock was never comfortable in its second half vs. Lafayette, but guard Josh Hagins lifted his game in the final 12 minutes. He credited the other Trojans. “My teammates found me,” he said of his 10 points after the game was tied at 40.

Hagins draws so much attention from opposing defenses in clutch moments, it leaves teammates open. Forward Lis Shoshi responded with 1:19 left with the biggest basket, putting UALR up 68-63, and a quick turnover led to a Marcus Johnson Jr. layup at 1:10 to all but seal it.

All else being equal — and we know it probably isn’t — Hagins and Johnson are the guards that should put over the top on Sunday. But don’t discount ULM’s backcourt of Coppola and Justin Roberson, who combined for 14 assists and 5-for-11 three-point shooting against UTA.

Deng, “has the wingspan of a guy 8 feet tall,” said UTA Coach Scott Cross, probably not exaggerating much. And Deng has a touch, hitting 3 of 6 three-pointers Saturday and altering shots on the other end. Harvey blocked three as well.

But ULM played six players at least 25 minutes on Saturday and used just one other sub for 10. Little Rock, as it did all season, played 10, all in key stretches. Junior forward Jalen Jackson came off the bench early when neither team could hit and scored 11 of Little Rock’s first 16 points. He was the least nervous player on the court.

“All I’m thinking about when I come in is be aggressive,” he said later. Jackson finished with a team-high 16.

“He was the biggest key in the game,” ULL Coach Bob Marlin said.

Can Little Rock’s guards win the day? Can the Trojans wear down ULM with the depth. With the Warhawks’ extra-long length cause problems for the top-seed’s offense and spoil a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“You don’t realize just how long they are,” UTA’s Cross said of the Warhawks. “You think you have an open shot and they can get out so quick and with that length, and all of a sudden it’s not open.”

ESPN2 will carry the game starting at noon. No matter the outcome for Little Rock, the NCAA selection show will be carried on KTHV, Channel 11, beginning at 4 p.m., running for two hours this year.

Are you pulling for the Little Rock Trojans to play in the NCAA Tourney?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
trojans minutes from ncaa tourney

Photo courtesy of Mark L. Wagner


Tags: ,