It was what a in-state rivalry game should look like.
Back and forth. Down to the wire. Overtime. Bodies diving, twisting and flying. Incredible shots. Amazing misfires. Dozens of in-and-out baskets. Determined last-second baskets.
The University of Central Arkansas game against Little Rock University’s men was all that — and more. It was played before 2,643, one of the best and most enthusiastic crowds at the Farris Center in recent years.
Too bad we don’t see more of this between state schools.
The teams will play again Dec. 10 in Little Rock.
What happened Tuesday should wet the appetite.
A UCA program that has struggled for double-digit wins that last few years took a senior-laden defending Sun Belt champion and an NCAA first-round Cinderella of last year to the wire — both in regulation and overtime.
The Bears were making their first appearance at home in the midst of several road games in the toughest schedule a UCA basketball team has ever played.
UCA currently has 1-5 to show for it. In perspective, it’s a good 1-5.
It’s the deepest team in quality depth that UCA has ever fielded. Tuesday was one of the most exciting games I’ve witnessed at the Farris Center.
Broadcaster Monty Rowell, who has seen as many UCA men’s games as anybody for decades, claims it’s the best UCA team in at least 25 years.
I can’t argue that.
The Bears should win their share of games this season — possibly becoming one of the surprises of the Southland — if they keep that competitive spirit and continue to learn their roles.
And learn how to beat teams, rather than just scare them.
The difference in the game Tuesday was the Trojans have veteran, tournament-hardened players who know how to win, whether doing big things or little things like boxing out at the right time on rebounds. That helped them jump to an 11-1 lead right off the bat. That helped them withstand a 14-0 run by the Bears late in the game. That led them to produce some key offensive and defensive plays under pressure in the final minutes and overtime after the Bears seemed to have victory within grasp.
The learning process is tantamount to UCA coach Russ Pennell and his scheduling philosophy this season.
The Southland Conference is a one-bid league for the NCAA tournament. The tournament champion goes. After if the tournament champion makes the field, it will be a lower seed and would likely face a highly ranked team from a power conference in the first round.
So, in nonconference, it’s important the Bears not only learn to be competitive but how to beat big-name and tradition-rich opponents. Just as crucial is learning how to win in the Southland Conference.
"Our season is really 18 conference games," said Pennell. "We have to be ready by then. The key now is to bottle up the good stuff."
Danberry and Tolefree
It’s interesting that two former Conway basketball stars, Jordan Danberry and Alexis Tolefree, have now transferred from the universities they signed orginally.
Danberry, a sophomore, left the Arkansas Razorbacks this week under apparent good terms. She’s exploring other DI possibilities.
During the summer for personal reasons, Tolefree transferred from UCA to Jones Community College in Mississippi, where former Sugar Bear assistant Brooke Rhodes is now an assistant.
"She (Tolefree) came to me and said she wanted to transfer," said UCA Sugar Bear coach Sandra Rushing reflecting almost a mirror conversation Danberry had with UA coach Jimmy Dykes.
That represents last three Girls Gatorade Players of the Year in the state.
It illustrates how college basketball is a different experience than high school. And they key for any oustanding prep player in any sport is finding the right college fit.
And it can take more than one attempt.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com)