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story.lead_photo.caption Markquis Nowell (left) and the UALR Trojans are 3-2 this season in games decided by five points or less after going 2-5 in such games last season. Nowell leads the Sun Belt in scoring at 19.8 points per game. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Jeff Gammons)

If the first two games of Sun Belt Conference are any indication, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock men's basketball is slowly figuring out how to do what it so often couldn't last season -- close out tight games.

Take the last outing at Louisiana-Lafayette on Dec. 21, when the Trojans trailed by one heading into the final minute before sophomore point guard Markquis Nowell drained a go-ahead three-pointer, junior forward Ruot Monyyong threw down a dunk, freshman guard Isaiah Palermo knocked down a pair of throws, and the defense delivered a stop to close out a 69-66 victory.

Today’s game

UALR men vs. Texas State

WHEN 6:30 p.m.

WHERE Jack Stephens Center, Little Rock

RECORDS UALR 8-5 (2-0 Sun Belt), Texas State 7-6 (0-2)

RADIO KKPT-FM 94.1 in Little Rock

INTERNET ESPN-Plus

Or look at two days prior at Louisiana-Monroe, when Nowell came through with a game-winning three-pointer with three seconds left that was launched from a spot closer to the half-court line than the three-point line, delivering a 73-72 victory.

That shot is still fresh in the mind of Coach Darrell Walker.

"I wasn't excited about it until it went in," Walker said. "I can't say what I said [when he shot it], but when it went in, I jumped up and said, 'Get back,' like most coaches do. 'What are you doing? Oh, great shot.' "

UALR (8-5, 2-0 Sun Belt) is 3-2 in games decided by five points or less, with four of those five coming on the road. Last season, it was 2-5 in such games and 2-9 in games decided by eight points or less.

"This team has just a different type of -- I wouldn't say swag -- but confidence about their self," Walker said. "We've played some close games. This team is not afraid to play on the road. I sensed that right away [in] the Missouri State game, the Illinois State game, even the Memphis game. They're not afraid of the road."

The 2-0 Sun Belt start is something UALR hasn't achieved since the 2015-16 season, when the program won its first five league games en route to capturing both the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament crowns, and making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And beating both Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette on the road in the same season is something UALR hadn't accomplished since 2009.

The next challenge is toppling a Texas State squad (7-6, 0-2) that has won its last four meetings against UALR. Tipoff at the Jack Stephens Center is tonight at 6:30. It's the start of a three-game home stand for UALR, which also hosts the University of Texas at Arlington (4-9, 0-2) on Saturday at 2 p.m., and then Georgia Southern (8-5, 2-0) on Monday at 6:30 p.m.

"At the end of the day, it's about protecting home now," Walker said. "I think the Sun Belt is wide open. I don't think there's any clear-cut favorite in the conference from some of the teams that I've watched. Anybody can beat anybody. If you got a chance to win games at home, you got to take advantage of it."

The Trojans are already two victories away from matching last season's total.

"The chemistry is there," Nowell said. "Last year, we were still new to the system, still new to the players. This year, we've bought in to the system, we've bought in to Coach, and we've matured a lot. You can tell that we're able to finish off close games now.

"We really got to keep our composure. We've won two games [in the Sun Belt], but we could also lose the next three, and that'll be a whole different story."

Nowell has been the primary spark plug for the Trojans. The 5-7, 155-pound point guard posted a season-high 33 points in that last-second victory at Louisiana-Monroe. He leads the Sun Belt in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game, while also averaging 4.5 assists, which ranks second in the league.

"He's taken a leap," Walker said. "He's a confident, confident offensive player right now."

Junior guard Ben Coupet Jr., Monyyong and sophomore forward Kamani Johnson also have played important roles. The Trojans are set to receive a lift on Jan. 9 at Troy when sophomore forward Nikola Maric returns from a 16-game, NCAA-mandated suspension for an offseason amateurism infraction.

Walker is unsure when junior forward Kris Bankston (back) and junior guard Alsean Evans (toe) will return from their injuries.

Those two, along with Maric, have missed a combined 34 games, but the Trojans have plugged away toward a promising start.

"I don't know when that's gonna catch up to us," Walker said, "but right now it hasn't."

UALR vs. Texas State

WHEN 6:30 p.m.

WHERE Jack Stephens Center, Little Rock

RECORDS UALR 8-5 (2-0 Sun Belt), Texas State 7-6 (0-2)

SERIES UALR leads 8-6

RADIO KKPT-FM 94.1 in Little Rock

INTERNET ESPN-Plus

PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS

UALR

POS, NAME, HT, YR PPG RPG

G Markquis Nowell, 5-7, So. 19.8 3.7

G Jovan Stulic, 6-5, Fr. 3.7 2.0

G Ben Coupet Jr., 6-7, Jr. 12.2 5.8

F Kamani Johnson, 6-7, So. 8.8 7.0

F Ruot Monyyong, 6-10, Jr. 11.2 8.8

COACH Darrell Walker (18-26 in two seasons at UALR)

TEXAS STATE

POS, NAME, HT, YR PPG RPG

G Mason Harrell, 5-9, So. 10.5 2.3

G Caleb Asberry, 6-3, So. 7.7 2.3

G Nijal Pearson, 6-5, Sr. 17.8 5.1

F Eric Terry, 6-8, Sr. 8.7 3.6

F Isiah Small, 6-8, Jr. 7.3 6.8

COACH Danny Kaspar (105-104 in seven seasons at Texas State)

TEAM COMPARISON

UALR TEXAS STATE

68.0 Points for 73.8

65.2 Points against 63.6

+4.2 Rebound margin +0.8

-1.2 Turnover margin +2.8

45.0 FG pct. 48.0

33.0 3-pt pct. 33.5

68.7 FT pct. 73.6

CHALK TALK Texas State has won the past four meetings against UALR. … UALR sophomore point guard Markquis Nowell leads the Sun Belt in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game. … Texas State senior guard Nijal Pearson ranks third in the league in scoring, averaging 17.8 ppg.

Photo by Jeff Gammons
FILE — UALR coach Darrell Walker is shown at left.

Sports on 01/02/2020

Print Headline: Trojans learning how to close out

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