Ladies dancing for second straight year
The Lady Trojans basketball team won its first-ever Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship, defeating the Western Kentucky Lady Toppers 66-59 in the championship game on Tuesday, March 8, at Summit Arena in Hot Springs. The Trojans earned the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with the win.
“I acted like a baby,” senior Shanika Butler said about her reaction to the victory. “It’s my first championship ever and to do it on this level with a great coach and a great team [and] two of the best friends I came to college with. It just poured out. I acted like a baby, but it feels good.”
Those two friends are fellow seniors Asriel Rolfe, who had 10 assists, and SBC Player of the Year Chastity Reed, who scored 22 points, earning the Women’s Most Outstanding Player. Reed averaged 21.3 points, five assists and four rebounds a game during the tournament.
Butler, the SBC Defensive Player of the Year, scored 14 points in the final and was named to the All-Tournament Team. UALR shot 51 percent from the field and held WKU to 43 percent.
“We never underestimated any team coming in,” Butler said. “It feels good to do this for the school, the program and the city of Little Rock. We can’t thank them any more for being here to support us and everything.”
The score was tied 30-30 at the half, which featured four ties and nine lead changes. Reed, who scored 12 points in the first half, hit a 15-foot jump shot to start an 8-2 UALR run and give them its largest lead (21-14) at the 10:02 mark. WKU junior Keisha Mosley scored six points during an 8-2 run to give the Lady Toppers a one-point lead. It was back-and-forth after that, both teams committing four turnovers apiece.
“You couldn’t ask for a better college basketball game,” SBC Coach of the Year Joe Foley said. “Neither team was having a whole lot of success stopping the other one and you just felt like it was going to come down to who had the ball last. It was just a great game. You couldn’t ask for two better finals in the last two years.”
The Trojans went to the championship game last year and lost 70-68 against Middle Tennessee in overtime. UALR made the tournament as an at-large 11 seed and defeated No. 6 seed Georgia Tech 63-53 before losing to No. 3 seed Oklahoma in the second round.
“I didn’t think we would,” Foley said when asked if he thought the Trojans would make it as an at-large this year if they had lost. “Of course, I didn’t think we would last year. I was going to have my fingers crossed and hope. This takes all the pressure off by far. It’s a great feeling.”
The Trojans started the second half on a 6-0 run, capped by a Janette Merriex 3-pointer with 18:49 remaining. Merriex scored 11 points hitting 2-3 from 3-point range. Seniors Amy McNear and Arnika Brown propelled the Lady Toppers to a 10-0 run the next 3:41 to take a four-point lead before the Trojans went up by one after a 5-0 run with 13:57 remaining.
It was back-and-forth again after that with no team leading by more than two points until Merriex was fouled while making a layup. She made the foul shot to give the Trojans a 58-55 lead with 3:23 left. There were 13 ties and 15 lead changes in the game.
McNear led the Toppers with 24 points and brought WKU within one at the 3:20 mark after a layup. Marian Kursh, who scored 14 points and grabbed five rebounds, countered with a layup to give the Trojans a three-point lead with 2:50 left. Brown grabbed one of her six offensive rebounds with 1:02 remaining and layed it up to get the Toppers back to a one-point deficit.
Kursh made a layup to extend the lead to 62-59 with :38 and McNear missed a 3-pointer with :17 remaining. Reed and Merriex each went 2-2 at the free throw line in the final seconds.
“We’ve been working so hard this year,” Reed alluded to injuries to all three seniors earlier in the season. “We had to get ourselves in shape. Western Kentucky is a good team. We had trouble stopping them last game also, but luckily we did come out on top.”
The Trojans lost to the Lady Toppers 66-64 at the Jack Stephens center on Feb. 16. Brown had a double-double in the championship game, scoring 17 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Brown and McNear were selected to the All-Tournament as well.
“Kudos to Arnika Brown,” Reed said. “This is her last year and she played totally different than she did last year.
“It went from one extreme to the other,” Reed said about winning this year after losing in the final last year. “Last year it was a devastating heartbreak. This year is a different feeling and I’m proud of my team.”
Reed said that winning the championship is a good accomplishment but she isn’t content yet. “I’m really thinking about the next game and whoever we’re going to play,” she said.
The Trojans will find out who they play in the NCAA Tournament on “Selection Sunday”.
“I tell my team every year,” Foley said. “It’s not fun until the end of the year — it’s work. At the end of the year when you‘re playing in March, that’s when it’s fun. With those three seniors, we’re going to have a big [watch party]. It’s great. One extreme last year, crying because the feeling hurt so bad, and this year, crying because it felt so good.”