Sun Belt bid goes to UALR
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Joe Foley can’t wait to host an NCAA selection show party this year.
The Arkansas-Little Rock coach didn’t plan a bash last year after a loss in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game. The school eventually received an at-large bid as a No. 11 seed, and defeated Georgia Tech in the first round before falling to Oklahoma.
After a 66-59 win against Western Kentucky in the conference tournament championship on Tuesday, the pressure of selection day is off for the Trojans. Now it’s time to celebrate.
“We’re going to blow it out this year,” Foley said.
Led by Sun Belt Player of the Year Chastity Reed, UALR (23-7) returned to the championship game for the third consecutive year on Tuesday and got its first conference title.
Reed scored 22 points and had a pair of key late assists to help UALR hold off the Lady Toppers (15-17). Ahead 58-57 in the closing minutes, Reed found Marian Kursh underneath for a pair of late baskets that gave the Trojans a 62-59 lead.
After Western Kentucky’s Amy McNear missed a potential game-tying 3-point attempt, Reed and Janette Merriex added late free throws to secure the win for UALR and book its return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s like from one extreme to the other,” Reed said. “Last year was just devastating and heartbreak. This year is a different feeling. I’m proud of the team.”
Western Kentucky started the season 0-5 before recovering to finish as a No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. The Lady Toppers entered the tournament with two consecutive losses but won three games in three days to reach the title game.
“It’s definitely not the way we wanted it to end,” Western Kentucky coach Mary Taylor Cowles said. “We didn’t want it to end, to be honest.”
The Lady Toppers battled back from a seven-point deficit in the first half and led 40-36 early in the second half after a 10-0 run during which McNear and Arnika Brown scored all 10 points. The duo combined to finish with 41 points.
After Reed drove in for a score to pull UALR within 40-38, the two teams stayed within two points of each other until Merriex converted a three-point play to put the Trojans up 58-55.
McNear answered with a layup to bring the Lady Toppers within 58-57, but Reed followed by twice getting the ball near the free-throw line and finding Kursh underneath for baskets to put UALR up 62-59. Reed finished with five rebounds and four assists despite missing action with foul trouble.
“She knows when to shoot it and when to pass it,” McNear said of Reed. “We had a couple of mistakes on rotations on defense and she found it.
“She’s a good player, and she’s going to find those kind of things.”
Foley was worried the Trojans wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year after losing in the conference finals. He admitted after Tuesday’s win that he once again wasn’t sure if UALR would have made the tournament if it had lost to Western Kentucky.
But the Trojans took any guessing out of the equation.
“I was going to have my fingers crossed and hope, but this takes all the pressure off by far,” Foley said. “It’s a great feeling.”