State Division I basketball report

Numbers helping out UCA

Central Arkansas women’s basketball Coach Tony Kemper speaks with guard Cheyanne Kemp (4) during a game Nov. 20, 2023, against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The freshman Kemp is one of many additions Kemper brought in that had helped the Sugar Bears improve and contend for the ASUN regular-season title.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
Central Arkansas women’s basketball Coach Tony Kemper speaks with guard Cheyanne Kemp (4) during a game Nov. 20, 2023, against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The freshman Kemp is one of many additions Kemper brought in that had helped the Sugar Bears improve and contend for the ASUN regular-season title. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

Down the stretch of last season, the University of Central Arkansas women's basketball team was running on fumes.

You could see it on the faces of the few remaining players. Body language, occasionally on-court play -- all the signs of a group that had nothing left to give.

Less than a year later, the Sugar Bears program has been rejuvenated -- in spirit, in pride and in its play.

While the sheer number of healthy players first-year Coach Tony Kemper has at his disposal would indicate a jump in performance from the group that finished last season with just four players, forcing it to forfeit its final three games, the Sugar Bears have done more than take the next step -- they've leaped into title contention for the first time in six seasons.

UCA (14-6, 6-1) enters today's matchup with Jacksonville in second place in the ASUN standings, one game behind six-time defending conference champion Florida Gulf Coast.

Kemper has added four new faces to the starting lineup this season: Arkansas State University transfer Jade Upshaw, Coffeyville (Kan.) C.C. transfer Cheyenne Banks and Dodge City (Kan.) C.C. transfers Leah Mafua and Bree Stephens.

Those four, alongside returner Randrea Wright, make up five of UCA's six top scorers. The Sugar Bears' leading scorer, however, is returner Kinley Fisher, who is averaging 13 points per game.

Kemper retained just three members of last season's squad: Wright, Fisher and Kierra Prim. The latter has found a role between the bench and starting as a forward, while the other two are leading the offense Kemper said he envisioned when he took the job last March.

"They're obviously good basketball players and they're smart and how they go about it," Kemper said. "You can see it. They've adjusted really well and quickly to the way that we play."

"'You don't know it, but I can show you on film. I think that you're going to enjoy being a guard in this system that we're going to run.' I've been nothing but happy with the way that they perform day in and day out, and I think you can see that when they play."

Fisher and Prim's moves to the bench have lengthened the rotation for Kemper, who plays up to 11 players in games. The impact Kemper's first recruiting class has had cannot be understated on turning the program around this quickly. Along with the four additions to the starting lineup, he added Leah's sister, Jenna Rose Mafua, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville transfer Destine Duckworth and freshmen Cheyanne Kemp and Elizabeth Abiara to provide different looks off the bench.

"I've had confidence in that group all year," Kemper said of the bench. "We've shown depth from day one. I think throughout the year it kind of changes [who steps up]. ... Some of them, I know, aren't getting the minutes they want. That's part of this. But it's not like you're playing behind somebody that can't play. So you just do your best to build everybody up, and then they have to be ready when they're called on."

-- Sam Lane

UAPB MEN

Making a difference

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff men's team finds itself a game out of first place in the Southwestern Athletic Conference standings after beating co-leader Grambling State on Monday. But the consistent production the Golden Lions have gotten out of one of the league's top players has been pivotal all season.

Kylen Milton, a 6-4 guard, is second in the SWAC in scoring at 19.1 points per game and was recently named the conference's impact player of the week after an impressive two-game stretch on the road. The junior had 20 points and seven rebounds in UAPB's 80-66 loss to Southern on Saturday. During the team's 86-70 victory over Grambling State on Monday, he finished with 26 points, including a 13-of-15 effort from the free-throw line.

The Monticello native also had a game-high nine rebounds and four assists for the Golden Lions, who led by as many as 22 points in the second half against a team that had won the previous six head-to-head meetings. For the season, he's scored at least 20 points nine times and has been held under 10 points in a game just once.

Milton will have a chance to continue his stellar play Saturday when UAPB (9-11, 4-3) plays at Mississippi Valley State. Tipoff is set for 5:30 p.m. at the Harrison HPER Complex in Itta Bena, Miss.

-- Erick Taylor

ARKANSAS STATE MEN

Red Wolves sharpshooter

It's been an up and down season for the Arkansas State men's program under first-year Coach Brian Hodgson. The team has produced some quality wins, but has also suffered several heartbreaking losses.

Last Sunday, the Red Wolves gave up a 41-26 halftime lead and fell on the road to Louisiana-Monroe 85-82 in overtime. While consistency has been an issue for the team as a unit, junior guard Avery Felts has been a model of consistency in Sun Belt Conference play.

A native of Bono, Felts is shooting a league best 50.0% from three-point range. He has converted on 26 of 52 shots from behind the arc in Sun Belt play. As a team, ASU shoots 46.7% on three-pointers and Felts has been the Red Wolves' most efficient shooter from three-point range.

In ASU's most recent win at Texas State on Jan 20, Felts knocked down 5 of 7 three-pointers and finished with 17 points. So far on the season, Felts has made multiple three-pointers in 10 games.

The Red Wolves will have a chance to quickly avenge last Sunday's loss to Louisiana-Monroe as they welcome the Warhawks to Jonesboro on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 2:30 p.m. at the First National Bank Arena.

-- Mike Harley

UALR WOMEN

Keeping the faith

Since starting the season with a 0-10 record, the Arkansas-Little Rock women's team has rattled off wins in seven of nine games and currently is tied for second place in the Ohio Valley Conference standings with a 6-2 record.

The play of sophomore forward Faith Lee has been pivotal in the turnaround for the Trojans (7-12, 6-2). Lee has scored in double figures in each game in the seven UALR wins. She leads the team in scoring at 14.9 points per game, but she has also been tasked with guarding the opponents best offensive weapons in many games.

Her two-way prowess was on full display in the Trojans 53-49 home victory over Eastern Illinois on Jan 6. In that game, Lee scored a season-high 25 points, while also coming up with four steals on the defensive side.

In UALR's most recent homestand last week, Lee scored 24 and 19 points, respectively, in wins over Lindenwood and Southeast Missouri State. Against Lindenwood, Lee scored 18 of her game-high 24 points in the second half as the Trojans used a 18-8 fourth quarter run to beat the Lions 50-45,

UALR heads to Illinois this week for games at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville tonight and Eastern Illinois on Saturday afternoon. Tonight's game is set for a 5 p.m. Central start, while Saturday's game will tip off at 1 p.m. Central.

-- Mike Harley

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