Not long after his Trojans pulled away late for a 77-59 victory over Southwest Baptist in Thursday night's home opener, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Coach Darrell Walker strolled into the media room, took a swig from a cold bottle of water and offered an unapologetic summation of his emotions.
"I feel like I freaking played tonight," Walker said, sarcastically. "And I shouldn't be feeling like that."
UALR (2-1) watched a 14-point first-half lead evaporate, as Southwest Baptist closed on a 21-2 run to lead 37-32 at the break. But the Trojans slowly chipped away in the second half before finally overwhelming the Bearcats late.
UALR retook the lead at 54-52 with 8:24 to play, thanks to five consecutive points by sophomore point guard Markquis Nowell, then closed the game on a 23-7 run.
Southwest Baptist played like a team with nothing to lose at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. The Bearcats, a Division II program from Bolivar, Mo., were afforded with the game as an exhibition on the schedule. Win or lose, it didn't count.
But it did still count for UALR, which faced a similar predicament a year ago when the Trojans opened the Walker Era at home against Division II Southeastern Oklahoma State. UALR trailed by five at the half then, before it survived in overtime, 101-92.
"I remember that game really well," said Nowell, who finished Thursday with a game-high 20 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 turnovers. "I didn't want to start off the season with a home loss. We just came [out the] second half, and we knew what our mistakes were, so we tried to adjust, try to fix it, try to lock in more, and we ran our offense better in the second half than we did in the first half."
Junior guard Ben Coupet Jr. added 18 points and 7 rebounds, including an authoritative one-handed dunk in transition in the final seconds that fired up the home crowd.
Three other Trojans finished in double figures. Junior forward Kris Bankston, who battled back spasms, posted 13 points in 18 minutes, junior guard Jaizec Lottie had 10 points and 4 assists, junior forward Ruot Monyyong logged 10 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, and sophomore forward Kamani Johnson tied his career high with 12 rebounds.
Bankston was nearly unstoppable in the early going with thunderous dunk after dunk.
Eleven of the Trojans' first 18 points came via Bankston, who started the game 5-for-5 with four dunks, as UALR opened a nine-point lead at the 14:49 mark. Bankston then went to the bench, but UALR kept pushing forward, taking a 30-16 lead with 7:40 remaining following a layup by Lottie.
But that's when everything started to unravel for the Trojans.
Southwest Baptist opened the floodgates with 18 consecutive points, as UALR proceeded to go scoreless for 6:11. Bankston finally ended the drought with another dunk.
In the final 7:15 of the half, Southwest Baptist went on a 21-2 run, as UALR turned the ball over seven times and struggled to hit shots and defend.
"We reverted back to some bad habits that we don't need -- turned the ball over, shooting too quick," Walker said. "I'm just glad they responded to my talk in the second half and came out and we got a win. That was big."
Asked what he told his team at the half, Walker said with a smile, "You don't want to know what I said."
UALR collected itself on both ends of floor in the second half. Each team traded buckets in the opening 5 1/2 minutes, before the Trojans finally started to take control and pull away.
Southwest Baptist -- which was led by guard Joe Miller's 18 points, including four three-pointers, and guard Brady Smith's 15 points -- was limited to 22 points on 36% shooting in the second half. UALR put up 45 points on 48% shooting and had 7 steals.
The Trojans dominated the interior with 44 points in the paint and 44 rebounds, compared to 20 and 23 for the Bearcats.
"I challenged my guys in the second half to come out and hold this team to 65 or less, and that's what they did," Walker said. "We got work to do ... and I know we do. I told my guys to go to sleep and get some rest because it's gonna be an old-school, Eddie Sutton practice [today]. It's gonna be a gut-check."
ARKANSAS STATE 71, VMI 56
Arkansas State University shot 58% from the floor Thursday and 71% from the free-throw line in a victory over VMI at First National Bank Arena in Jonesboro.
The Keydets jumped out to an early 8-4 lead with 16:55 left in the first half after Kamdyn Curfman hit a three-pointer, but the Red Wolves would take a 9-8 lead with 16:07 left after a jumper by Malik Brevard.
The teams traded baskets and the game was tied at 15-15 with 12:45 remaining in the first half after a three-pointer by Travis Evee. ASU then took control of the game, using a 13-1 run over roughly the next 5 1/2 minutes to take a 28-16 lead with 7:21 left in the first half after a Brevard layup.
VMI got the lead down to seven points nearly two minutes later, but trailed at halftime 40-29.
In the second half, the Keydets cut the lead to 44-38 with 15:37 remaining after Myles Lewis made 1 of 2 free throws, but the Red Wolves went on a 9-0 run over the next 4 minutes -- capped by a three-pointer by Jerry Johnson -- to take a 53-38 led with 11:38 left.
Canberk Kus led ASU with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the floor, while Brevard finished with 17.
Myles Lewis led VMI with 11 points, while Curfman and Evee chipped in with 10 each.
Sports on 11/15/2019
Print Headline: Second-half spark lights Trojans' fire