It is now or never.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock's men's basketball team can no longer afford another loss in Sun Belt Conference play or its season will end in three days by all reasonable expectation.
After losing two consecutive games at Georgia Southern and Georgia State last week, the Trojans fell out of control of their own destiny to enter the conference tournament, which begins Tuesday.
UALR (10-19, 5-11) has lost four consecutive games. Another loss, most likely, is season-ending.
The Trojans will conclude their regular season with a two-game homestand beginning at 6:30 p.m. today against Louisiana-Lafayette (17-12, 8-8) at the Jack Stephens Center at Little Rock. UALR will also host Louisiana-Monroe at 3 p.m. Saturday.
"You've got to take care of yourself and quit worrying about somebody else helping you out," UALR Coach Darrell Walker said. "I've never done that. We have to let the process play out."
Because of UALR's 77-73 loss to Appalachian State on Jan. 26, the tiebreaker belongs to the Mountaineers. UALR must win one more game than No. 10 seed Appalachian State (10-19, 5-11) this week to qualify for the conference tournament.
If UALR loses to Louisiana-Lafayette and Appalachian State defeats last-place Troy (11-17, 4-12) today, the Trojans will be officially eliminated from the tournament.
"We have to win games," Walker said. "That has not changed."
The Ragin' Cajuns, who defeated the Trojans 75-61 on Jan. 5, are in a three-way tie for fifth place with Louisiana-Monroe and Coastal Carolina at 8-8.
The No. 6-10 seeds will be in a play-in games before qualifying for the tournament's later rounds at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, so both Louisiana schools have plenty incentive to win this week, regardless of being already locked into the tournament's 10-team field.
It's been two months since UALR and Louisiana-Lafayette played, but Walker said he still vividly remembers what happened Jan. 5.
Louisiana-Lafayette senior forward JaKeenan Gant scored 45 points on 15-of-21 shooting, including 4 of 5 three-pointers and 11 for 11 from the free-throw line. He also had 11 rebounds against the Trojans at the Cajundome in Lafayette, La.
Gant has 12 total double-doubles this season, the most by any player in the Sun Belt.
"I just told the guys, 'He got 45 on us,' " Walker said Wednesday. "Hopefully they'll take that personally and be ready to lock in on him."
"We helped with 23 turnovers, too, by the way," Walker added.
Louisiana-Lafayette scored 24 points off UALR's 23 turnovers, the most the Trojans have had in a Sun Belt game this season.
Between turnovers and Louisiana-Lafayette making 17 of 21 free throws, Gant single-handedly dismantled the Trojans when they weren't already hurting themselves, Walker said.
This time, Walker said he has no preference how it's done, but UALR must win.
"It can be a defensive battle, I don't care," he said. "It can be in the 50s, I don't care as long as we win. I'm just trying to get to New Orleans."
For the third consecutive game, UALR will be without starting freshman forward Kamani Johnson because of a concussion. Starting point guard Markquis Nowell will also not play after being hobbled by two ankle injuries this season, Walker said.
Johnson smacked his head against the floor in UALR's 72-65 loss at Arkansas State on Feb. 23 and did not play in either of the team's losses in Georgia.
Nowell played more than 23 minutes in each of UALR's losses, but did not practice Wednesday.
UALR has not played a single game this season in which all 11 players on scholarship were healthy. At least one scholarship player has been unavailable in all 29 games.
Like they have been all season, the Trojans will be short-handed Thursday in a meaningful game. And still, UALR has a chance to keep its season alive.
"We're going to have to go out and win," Walker said. "There's no reason why we can't win them. At the end of the day, man, I just believe if we come out and play, we have a chance."
Sports on 03/07/2019
Print Headline: Trojans clinging to hope