Trojans back in NCAAs for first time in 21 years
The Trojan men’s basketball team is heading to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990 after defeating the North Texas Mean Green 64-63 on Tuesday, March 8, in the Sun Belt Conference Championship at Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ark. Senior guard Solomon Bozeman hit a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left in the game to defeat last year’s SBC champs.
“Coach Shields told me to put the ball in my hands,” Bozeman said. “He was saying we could go for a two or a three. He was saying we didn’t need a three, but I knew the whole time I was going to go for the win. I went left, kind of gave him a little nudge, stepped back and hit the jumper and it felt good.”
The Trojans (19-16) were down 59-52 with 1:43 left and Bozeman was fouled. He hit both of his free throws to give UALR a five-point deficit. After UALR coach Steve Shields called a 30-second timeout, junior point guard D’Andre Williams stole the ball from Mean Green guard Josh White, who fouled Williams at the 1:21 mark. Williams hit his free throws to put the Trojans down 59-56.
Mean Green senior guard Tristan Thompson fouled Williams again, who hit the free throws to bring UALR within one, with 0:48 left.
White hit a 3-pointer on NTU’s next possession to push the Trojan deficit to four. UALR senior guard Matt Mouzy countered with a 3-pointer with 0:17 remaining to get back within three points.
North Texas (22-11) turned the ball over on the next possession and Mouzy missed a wide-open three and Thompson pulled down the rebound and was fouled. With 0:07 left, Thompson hit 1-2 free throws before Bozeman, the SBC Player of the Year, dribbled down and hit the game-winning shot.
“When you get in that situation, you try and make sure that your basketball team has no panic,” Shields said. “I thought our guys did a very good job of not panicking [and] staying solid in our defensive philosophy. We were able to get some stops and our guys made some plays.”
North Texas scored the first five points of the game, but the Trojans countered with a 9-2 run capped by a Williams’ 3-pointer at the 15:06 mark giving UALR a 9-7 lead. It was a back-and-forth affair until the Mean Green went on a 7-0 run to take a six-point lead with 4:28 remaining in the first half. The next 2:35, the Trojans used a 13-2 run to take a five-point lead. NTU forward George Odufuwa scored four points during a 5-0 North Texas run, ending the half with a 32-32 tie.
Earlier this season, the Trojans lost to North Texas 81-69 on Dec. 30 in Denton, Texas, and lost to the Mean Green 72-69 the last regular season game of the year at the Jack Stephens Center. UALR had lost its three previous games before defeating South Alabama, Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee to get to the championship game.
“We had a [player’s only] meeting and got a lot of stuff out,” Bozeman said in reference to the team’s three consecutive losses to close the season out. “We said we had to change our ways and come together as a team. It paid off.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” Shields said. “The five seniors in particular coming off the year we had last year when we faced some adversity and didn’t particularly handle it as well as we would have liked.”
The Trojans finished with an 8-22 record last year when they lost a vital piece of their team in senior forward Mike Smith to a season-ending knee injury in the first conference game against South Alabama.
“We were up six with 15 minutes left and didn’t handle the next eight minutes very well,” Shields said about the South Alabama game last year. “From there on, we struggled. This group of seniors committed coming out of [last] year to find a way to get this thing turned.”
UALR last made the Sun Belt Championship Game in 1996 when five-time NBA champion Derek Fisher was a senior. The Trojans lost to New Orleans 57-56 that year so they were not able to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The last time UALR made the “Big Dance” was in 1990 when they were beat by the UNLV Rebels 102-72. That “Runnin Rebels” team featured four future players drafted in the NBA the same year, highlighted by the No. 1 pick in the draft, Larry Johnson.
White led the Mean Green with 17 points while Thompson scored 15 points on 4-12 from the field. Averaging 26.6 points the prior three games of the SBC Tournament, Thompson’s 15 points was his lowest output. Odufuwa recorded a double-double with 10 points and 17 rebounds.
Both teams shot 40 percent from the field and the Trojans hit 15-16 from the foul line, with the Mean Green connecting on 16-20. NTU dominated UALR on the boards 40-26, 25-11 in the second half, but the Trojans countered the poor rebounding by forcing 16 turnovers, while committing five. UALR outscored NTU 19-8 in points-off-turnovers.
Bozeman scored 20 points to lead the Trojans and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Freshman forward Gus Leeper had 10 points. Trojan junior forward Marlon Louzeiro had seven rebounds to lead the team, while Williams and freshman Chuck Guy each had four assists to share the team lead.
“We’re going to the NCAA Tournament,” Bozeman said. “It hasn’t happened in a long time. I’m just proud of this team. We stayed together. We were up and down, but we stayed together and fought and kept believing in each other.”