UCA adjusts without head coaches

A referee holds up a basketball during an NCAA college basketball game in this undated file photo. (AP/Adam Hunger)
A referee holds up a basketball during an NCAA college basketball game in this undated file photo. (AP/Adam Hunger)

The University of Central Arkansas men's basketball team hadn't seen their head coach in over two weeks.

Coach Anthony Boone had emergency heart surgery on Jan. 5 after experiencing chest pains the night before.

At UCA game against Eastern Kentucky on Jan. 5, assistant coach Brock Widders was tasked with stepping into the acting head coach's role.

He and the Bears (6-15, 1-7 ASUN) fell short of a win in their first game without their head coach. Since then, UCA is 1-4 with only a win over Queens (N.C.).

On Jan. 20, as the Bears prepared to head to Florence, Ala., to face North Alabama, the team bus took a short, but desperately needed detour.

The Little Rock Tours and Travel bus rolled down a neighborhood street in Conway and stopped in front of Boone's house.

The Bears' traveling party spent some time with Boone in his driveway, days after his release from the hospital following surgery.

"The guys seeing Coach Boone, I think meant a lot to them," Widders said. "And really [Coach] Boone getting to see the guys was, I think, a lot for him as well. He's kind of cooped up in the house. And so it really meant the world to see our guy."

It's pretty inconvenient to bring a bus full of players to Boone's house all that often, but Widders said he's made the trip nearly every other day since Boone's release from the hospital.

"At the very beginning, [for] probably seven straight days, I was unable to see him or even talk to him at all. But after that, I was able to go to the hospital personally and see him quite a bit myself," Widders said. "Now that he's at home, I try to go see him and sit with him at least every other day. [We] talk ball, we talk life, we talk everything and now that he's out, I'm getting to see him quite a bit more."

Boone's Bears, however, are not the only UCA team that has been without its leader these past few weeks.

UCA's women's basketball Coach Sandra Rushing, has missed the Sugar Bears' last seven games dating to Jan. 7 against Eastern Kentucky.

Rushing is currently in Mississippi caring for her mother, who has been in poor health. In her place, associate head coach Tiffany Phillips has been the Sugar Bears' acting head coach with the team -- although Rushing has been far from uninvolved during her absence.

Rushing has been heavily involved in scouting teams, creating game plans and helping plan practices since she has been in Mississippi.

Phillips joked that nearly every entry into her "recent calls" list brought up the name of the UCA head coach.

"Coach Rushing has been very, very supportive," Phillips said. "And all joking aside, we do talk every hour, probably on the hour. So her support has meant a lot to me."

Rushing did something similar almost exactly five years ago in January 2018 following the death of her father. Back then, like UCA's most recent games, Rushing spoke to her team before and after games and gave halftime adjustments over the phone.

In Rushing's absence, the Sugar Bears (6-12, 1-6) have gone 1-4, losing their last four games.

Not only are both teams without their head coaches, but they are each playing shorthanded as injuries have started to pile up.

The Sugar Bears currently have eight active players with the remainder of the roster out due to injuries or suspended because of a violation of team rules.

The Bears played their most recent game, an 82-64 loss to North Alabama, with nine active players. The Bears have had seven different starting lineups this season and 12 players have missed a game due to injury.

Neither team is letting their circumstances get the better of them.

"We sat on the bus when we were going to Florida last week, and I said, 'There's eight people on this bus, that's the eight that we're going to focus on, and that's the eight that we're going with,' and they've bought into that," Phillips said.

"It's extremely difficult," Widders said. "There's a lot of adversity from losing your head coach to having five key players out last year. So it is very difficult but it is adversity. If anything, this is a good time in life for our guys to learn about life.

'There's gonna be bad things [that] happen in their life over the next 30, 40 years. And so, hopefully, our guys are learning how to continue to work with urgency [and] continue to work with detail even when things aren't going your way."

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