Playing back-to-back nights in college basketball doesn’t happen often. That typically only comes in the one-off November tournaments or conference tournaments in March.
Fresh off a 67-56 win over St. Francis Brooklyn the prior night, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock men’s team was sluggish in the opening 13 minutes Wednesday against Alcorn State, falling behind 19-8 and looking desperate for any source of offense. Maybe it had something to do with the short turnaround, or maybe not.
But the Trojans eventually found offense from their unquestioned leader, sophomore point guard Markquis Nowell, and his supporting cast later followed suit, as UALR pulled away in the second half for a 67-50 victory, once again thanks to a resilient defensive effort.
“I was very disappointed in my team, how we came out,” UALR Coach Darrell Walker said. “I told them this would be a hard basketball game, but sometimes, you’ve got to find [that] out on [your] own. We had no energy, no life at all. Not taking anything away from [Alcorn State] — we were awful.
“I’ll give my team some credit — we fought back to get a one-point lead [at halftime], and then we came out in the second half and really, really defended.”
So much so that the Trojans (5-3), who led 30-29 at the break, outscored Alcorn State 37-21 over the final 20 minutes, limiting the Braves (2-5) to 27.6% shooting and 0-for-11 from the three-point line.
It was yet another strong defensive night for UALR, which has given up 70 points just twice through the first eight games.
“I keep telling you, we’re gonna have a tough time scoring some nights, and we have to defend,” Walker said. “We have to believe that we can defend anybody. I think they have that mindset that we can be a pretty good defensive team.”
After a 28-point outing Tuesday, Nowell followed it up with 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, logging all 40 minutes for the sixth time this season.
Sophomore forward Kamani Johnson, who’s struggled often while filling in for the injured junior forward Kris Bankston, posted a double-double with a career-high 17 points and tying his career high for rebounds with 12. Fifteen of his points and eight of his rebounds came in the second half. He also went 9 of 12 from the free-throw line.
“I think I definitely needed this confidence boost,” Johnson said. “I mean it’s pretty big shoes to fill, but I don’t think it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Freshman guard Jovan Stulic, who entered Wednesday 1 of 14 from the field and 0 for 10 from three-point range this season, had 11 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists — each career bests — and he went 2-for-7 from beyond the arc.
Stulic’s one-handed put-back dunk with 16:09 left in the second half lifted the energy of the crowd and the Trojans’ bench and gave UALR a 41-31 lead.
“He’s a freshman. He’s getting yelled at a lot. Trust me, he’s gonna be a solid basketball player,” Walker said. “He’s just trying to figure it out. I was happy that he made some shots tonight. I thought he was pretty solid defensively. I think the more he plays, the more he’ll get comfortable.”
Guard Troymain Crosby led Alcorn State with 19 points and 9 rebounds, while guard Maurice Howard added 13 points.
UALR finished the night 40% from the field, 6 of 20 from beyond the arc and 19 of 28 from the foul line. The Trojans committed 19 turnovers, compared to 16 by Alcorn State, but outscored the Braves 15-10 off of them and 20-8 on the fast break.
That one-point halftime lead for UALR was solely because of Nowell’s play in the waning minutes.
After a 6:03 scoring drought by the Trojans, Johnson finally ended it with a layup and a foul at the 6:55 mark. But he missed the ensuing free throw, and UALR trailed 19-10.
That’s when Nowell unleashed a flurry on Alcorn State. Fourteen of the Trojans’ next 15 points came via Nowell, including a stretch of 12 consecutive. His pull-up three in transition with 58 seconds left brought UALR within 26-25, then he made a cross-court pass in the final seconds to Stulic, who buried a three-pointer in the corner at the buzzer to put UALR up 30-29 heading into the break.
“If we didn’t have [Nowell’s] 26 tonight,” Walker said, “we would’ve been in trouble.”
Nowell’s hot hand carried over early in the second half with a three-pointer and then a three-point play, as UALR grabbed a 39-29 lead with 16:52 left.
Leading 46-39 with just under nine minutes remaining, the Trojans used a 12-0 run to break the game open, which was capped by a three-pointer from Nowell at the 4:44 mark. UALR had opened up a 19-point advantage — its largest of the night — and it was stress-free the rest of the way.
The Trojans — who have won two consecutive games but continue to play without three starters in sophomore forward Nikola Maric (suspension), Bankston (back injury) and junior guard Alsean Evans (toe injury) — face their next test on Saturday afternoon at home against East Tennessee State (6-1).
“We’re still a work in progress. Let’s not get away from that. I still got a bunch of good players that’s out,” Walker said. “But the guys I got right now, they’re defending and they’re playing hard as hell. They’re really playing hard.”