The University of Central Arkansas Bears are primed for a stretch run that has them playing four of their final six regular-season games at home at the Farris Center, beginning with a Wednesday night matchup with the McNeese State Cowboys.
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
The Sugar Bears play McNeese State at the same time in Lake Charles, La.
The Bears (13-12, 7-5) sit in sixth place in the Southland Conference standings, with the top eight teams earning a berth in the SLC postseason tournament in Katy, Texas. UCA is trying to make its second consecutive appearance at the Merrell Center under head coach Russ Pennell. Victories of any kind, but particularly at home, will definitely help their cause.
“We keep growing as a group and we realize these last few games are crucial," said coach Russ Pennell. But right now you have to be really careful not to get ahead of yourself, not to worry too much about others. We have three weeks and six games to get the job done. Our guys are very locked in. And I sure want this group to finish strong. Every coach will tell you, in any sport, when it gets down to the end, you want to make sure you’re pushing forward and not going the other way. And I think that’s where we’re at."
The Bears are rested after an open date last Saturday and a 100-80 victory over Houston Baptist last Wednesday night in Houston. Senior guard Jordan Howard scored 35 points and 7-foot freshman center Hayden Koval recorded a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and a school-record 11 blocked shots. It was UCA’s second triple-double of the season, both by a freshman. Guard DeAndre Jones had 13 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in an overtime win over Lamar on Jan. 6, also on the road. Koval’s feat was the 20th triple-double in the country this season, but the only one to feature points, rebounds and blocks.
Howard and Koval both rank among the NCAA national leaders in several categories. Howard is third in the nation in scoring at 25.8 points per game, third in total points (646) and tied for 10th in three-pointers (86). Koval is fourth in blocked shots per game (3.2) and tied for seventh in total blocked shots (77). Among currently active players, Howard is No. 1 in points scored with 2,290 and No. 2 in three-pointers with 359 for his career.
The Bears and Cowboys (8-14, 5-7) will be meeting for the only time this season. McNeese State won last year’s only matchup 82-72 in Lake Charles, La. The Cowboys had five players in double figures, while the Bears had three. Howard, UCA’s career scoring leader and three-point leader, led the Bears with 20 points, htting 4 of 8 from three-point range. Kalob Ledoux topped MSU with 17 points, going 5 of 10 from beyond the arc.
The Cowboys have lost four of the past five games, including two straight home games to Southeastern Louisiana (74-67) and Stephen F. Austin (99-95), both sitting among the top four teams in the league standings. MSU is 3-10 on the road this season, with wins at SLU, HBU and Northwestern State.
UCA is coming off three consecutive road games, dating back to Jan. 27. The Bears’ last home game was a historic 100-92 victory over SFA, the first in 17 games against the Lumberjacks. Since then, UCA has won at Northwestern State and HBU and lost 89-84 at SLU.
“Wednesday night’s game will be a good one,’ said Pennell, “because McNeese is a little bit desperate. They lost two home games last week, and they were sitting in pretty good position before they lost two. And I think they will come in a wounded animal and they will give us their best effort. What we have to do is match that with great intensity."
The Bears are at home again Saturday afternoon against league-leader Nicholls State (3:30 p.m.), beginning a tough stretch of four games against the Colonels (10-2), SFA (9-3) and Abilene Christian (7-6) on the road and at home against second-place Sam Houston State (10-3).
The Bears earned the No. 8 seed to the SLC Tournament a year ago, emerging from a five-way tie for eighth place in the final regular-season standings. Currently, there are 10 teams fighting for the eight spots, with HBU, Incarnate Word and NSU all but eliminated with one conference victory between them.
UCA stands sixth at 7-5, followed by Lamar and ACU at 7-6, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 5-6 and McNeese at 5-7.