Sugar Bears’ run in fourth not enough to stop Billikens

Tony Kemper
Tony Kemper

CONWAY -- There was no storybook ending for the University of Central Arkansas.

The Sugar Bears fell 66-61 to Saint Louis in the first round of the WNIT on Thursday night at the Farris Center, ending their 14-game winning streak at home and putting to bed the program's first winning season since 2017-18.

"Nobody thought that our group would be sitting in that locker room tonight basically disappointed about how our year ended," Central Arkansas Coach Tony Kemper said. "You're in a really good place when that's the feeling in there.

"We didn't want to [just] be here, we wanted to win."

The season -- with a roster built from scratch, under a first-year coach -- nearly came to an unceremonious end. But the Sugar Bears gave their fans one last run to cheer for.

UCA (21-12) trailed 51-43 at the end of three quarters as Saint Louis (18-18) outscored it by 10 points in the third quarter. The run, led by eight of the game-high 28 points from senior forward Peyton Kennedy, took the air out of the Farris Center.

The Sugar Bears spent the early part of the fourth quarter clawing back into the game that had slipped away from them. A 17-9 run, capped by a Leah Mafua three-pointer and Elizabeth Abiara's free throw, tied the score at 61-61 with 50 seconds remaining.

After a traveling call for each team, Kennedy made a tough layup over multiple UCA defenders to give Saint Louis a 63-61 lead. On the other end, Mafua's layup attempt came off the backboard strong and fell into the hands of the Billikens.

"I was very proud of the fact that we got it back tied," Kemper said. "And then sometimes, that ball rolls around in there and it goes in for you, sometimes it goes in for them.

"I'm happy that we played in that game in here. Hopefully, it fuels the future, and we go from where we're at right now and we move again next year."

Saint Louis' defense routinely confused UCA by cycling through aggressive zone and man-to-man coverages.

Kemper said he and his staff did their best to simulate what the Saint Louis defense would look and feel like in practice. But with four players 5-11 or taller on the court, it overwhelmed UCA's guards.

"Their length is good," Kemper said. "That's very typical of bigger leagues. They're just bigger. We went against multiple looks, and we weren't quite sure what they were going to do against us."

The Sugar Bears found some stretches of success, like Jade Upshaw scoring 13 of her team-high 17 points in the second quarter, but they couldn't sustain those stretches.

Leading the attack was senior guard Julia Martinez, who finished with 8 points, 11 assists, 4 rebounds, 5 steals and a block. Her constant presence on the ball, as a primary and weak-side defender, took advantage of multiple lapses in concentration from the Sugar Bears.

"Can we replicate it? No. But we also haven't seen it really from many other teams, so nobody else can replicate it either," Kemper said of Martinez's impact. "She had a nice game, but I thought their group was good.

"You see a lot about teams not wanting to play and this and that. And so my hat's off to them. They played in the WNIT, they got on the bus, they came to Central Arkansas and they wanted to play."

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