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UALR turns up defense in victory

by Mitchell Gladstone | November 10, 2021 at 2:20 a.m.

As the shot clock ticked down, the noise inside Little Rock's Jack Stephens Center began to swell.

By the time the horn blared with 6.8 seconds remaining in the game, the crowd had erupted. It was a fitting highlight for the game.

The University of Arkansas-Little Rock men's basketball team put in an impressive defensive outing, turning 23 Southern Illinois turnovers into 33 points as the Trojans surged for a 69-66 victory in their season opener Tuesday night at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock.

UALR strung together an 18-0 run over more than five minutes in the second half, flipping what was a 14-point deficit midway through the first half into a 14-point lead.

But it could've been all for naught if the Trojans had allowed a bucket in the closing seconds. Instead, the visitors couldn't even get off a shot.

"There were 13 seconds on the clock -- that's not a lot of time to run something against a zone press," Coach Darrell Walker said of his decision to go a 1-3-1 zone defense for the game's critical possession. "Anything you do is 50-50. I could've gone man-to-man and it would've been 50-50. ... My gut was to go zone."

Early on, it seemed highly unlikely the game would come down to the final seconds. Southern Illinois (0-1) made four of its first six three-point shots.

UALR (1-0) started to claw its way back into things, though, as Jovan Stulic asserted himself and ignited the home crowd. The junior guard took a hard fall on a drive to the basket, made his two free throws and then threw down a thunderous two-handed jam, exalting in front of the Trojans student section that trickled in shortly after the 5 p.m. start.

"It means a lot to me," said Stulic, who led UALR with 15 points. "It definitely felt like we had six players out there."

Walker told his staff late in the first half that he knew his team would be fine if they were within a six points at the break. The Trojans did even better, finishing the half on a 9-2 run to trail just 37-34.

UALR kept up its defense in the second half as the Trojans forced seven turnovers during the Salukis' scoreless stretch, grabbing a 58-44 lead with 11:02 remaining.

The Salukis battled all the way back, outscoring UALR 16-4 over the next seven minutes to make it a two-point game.

That's when the Trojans went to veteran big man Nikola Maric.

Walker said he expected Southern Illinois to double Maric, and the visitors did, but he made them pay at the free-throw line . The Bosnian senior hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final four minutes, part of an 11-point, 7-assist, 7-rebound game.

Alseab Evans finished with 13 and points and transfer DeAntoni Gordon added 12.

"We're a pretty solid basketball team," Walker said when asked what he wants his team to take away from the victory. "We took care of the basketball. ... We didn't shoot well in the first half, but this was a gritty, old-school basketball game."

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