UAM sweeps long trip, runs win streak to seven
With the exception of a select few NCAA Division I programs, roughly one-fourth of any collegiate basketball player’s experience is on a bus. There’s always the classroom—which should be foremost to any student-athlete; games—which players enjoy the most; practices—which are necessary for success; and road trips—which not many eagerly anticipate.
As a general rule, the longer the trip, the less both players and coaches look forward to traveling. Returning home with two wins doesn’t make the miles go away but it sure eases the lengthy ride.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello opened the new year with the formidable journey to western Oklahoma—its longest road trip of the regular season. The some eight-hour excursion from Steelman Field House didn’t seem to bother the Boll Weevils any, though, as they posted their fourth and fifth Great American Conference victories in a row.
Last Thursday, UAM outlasted Southwestern Oklahoma State University 67-65 in Weatherford, Okla. Two days later, the Weevils had to take an extra five minutes but won 75-74 in overtime against Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, Okla.
Starting 2019 on that note improved UAM to 9-3 for the season and 5-1 in the GAC. The Weevils haven’t lost a league game since Nov. 29, 2018—and are currently riding a seven-game win streak. The Kelly Green and White finds itself in a four-way tie for first place in the GAC right now, but must not let down as the upcoming three-game homestand includes nothing but the other top conference squads.
Thursday, UAM will entertain Southeastern Oklahoma State University, which at 5-2 in the conference sits only one-half game behind the leaders. Then on Saturday, 4-2 East Central University visits Steelman Field House. Thursday’s tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m.; Saturday’s game time is 3 p.m.
Next Thursday (Jan. 17), rival Southern Arkansas University, one of the GAC co-leaders with UAM, will be in town for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff. With three of their five wins so far taking place away from home, however, Weevils’ head coach Kyle Tolin said he sees exciting things ahead.
“This team has similarities to a few years ago,” Tolin said of his 2018-19 unit, when asked to compare this year’s results to the success enjoyed by a junior-laden squad two seasons ago, which finished 23-7 and tied for the regular-season GAC championship at 17-5. “We have to continue to get better, especially on the offensive end, though.
“It is tough to win on the road, so it was obviously two big wins (last weekend). The travel was way better this year after two wins. We had big stops at both of the games.
“That is a tough road trip and we made several tough plays during both of those games. We still have a long way to go and are going to play teams at the top of our league now so need to get better. We have a big week coming up—and hopefully will have great crowds this week.”
Guard K.J. Lesure, a 5-foot-10 junior from Indianapolis by way of Columbia State (Tenn.) Community College, was the Weevils’ spark last weekend, particularly Saturday when he scored 23 of his game-high 25 points in the second half and overtime to keep UAM in touch with—and eventually conquer—the Rangers.
“Keelin Jackson (the lone senior on this year’s team and the only returning starter from a year ago) had a good week for us,” Tolin praised. “K.J. Lesure really played well on Saturday and made big plays on both ends of the floor when we needed them.”
Even with Lesure’s point production Saturday, the single most influential thing he did against Northwestern might have been the steal he secured with two seconds remaining in overtime to preserve the win for UAM. That came after he hit the winning free throw with 18 seconds left to put the Weevils on top for the final time.
In a game that saw 12 lead changes and 10 ties, UAM had to come from behind for the victory. In fact, Northwestern dominated the first half, leading by 13 points at one point before settling for a 34-27 intermission advantage. The first Weevil lead was at 50-49 as junior Kwame McBean sank two free throws at the 9-minute, 38-second mark of the second half.
The visitors built a seven-point lead on two occasions after that but the Rangers knotted the regulation score at 64 all on one of their seven made three-point shots. Jackson’s trey with 2:46 remaining in overtime put the Weevils ahead to stay, although there were two ties down the stretch.
McBean and classmate Darnell Wright, who scored 10 points apiece, were the only other UAM players in double figures against Northwestern. Lesure’s 25 points came on 8-for-15 shooting from the field (including 4-for-8 from beyond the arc) and a 5-for-6 afternoon from the charity stripe.
In the first game of the long road trip, Jackson recorded his third double-double of the season, scoring 10 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, to help UAM hang on to the win.
The Weevils led comfortably, 45-26, at intermission but had to withstand a furious Southwestern rally after halftime. An 11-0 run by the Bulldogs that began at 5:28 of the second half and included three three-pointers brought the hosts close and made the final score appear closer than the game actually was.
Southwestern cut its deficit to one point with 47 second left in regulation but Jackson’s free throw after he was fouled on a fast break layup attempt with the clock showing 0:00 accounted for the final score.
Aside from Jackson, three other Weevils reached the double-figure plateau. Wriht led UAM with 16 points, Lesure had 13 (including another 4-for-8 shooting night from beyond the arc) and junior Marcus Gilbert chipped in with 11.