NORMAN, Okla. — In their third attempt of the season, the University of Central Arkansas Bears nearly knocked off a Big 12 team here Thursday night.
The Oklahoma Sooners withstood a furious UCA rally down the stretch and held on for a tough, 76-73 victory at the Lloyd Noble Center.
UCA (4-9) tied the game with back-to-back 3-pointers with 2:40 remaining but the Sooners (7-6) hit their free throws down the stretch to remain perfect at home this season at 7-0. OU has now won 26 consecutive non-conference home games. The Bears, coming off an eight-day holiday break, enter Southland Conference play at home on Jan. 8 against Lamar.
"That’s the first time I’ve seen us as a team really play that hard and with that type of emotion, really since before the Missouri State game," said UCA head coach Corliss Williamson. "I’m really happy to see that right before conference play starts. Of course, we wanted to win badly, but to see that effort tonight, it’s very encouraging.
"I’m very proud of the way we came back and fought and gave ourselves an opportunity to win a ballgame. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come and we can continue to build on it and continue to get better."
Despite the Sooners making 15 of their first 18 shots from the field and shooting 76 percent from the field in the first half, the Bears kept it close. UCA, which led on several occasions in the first half, shot 60.9 percent in the opening 20 minutes, and nailed 7 of 11 from 3-point range.
UCA took a 21-16 lead on back-to-back 3-pointers from Chris Henson and Mark Rutledge, the second at the 11:25 mark. Another 3-pointer, this one from T.K. Smith, put the Bears up 21-16 before the Sooners scored six consecutive points to go ahead 22-21. The Sooners, who were 12 of 14 at the six-minute mark, managed to pushed their lead to a high of 11 points, 39-28, on a 3-pointer by Cameron Clark with 2:55 remaining.
UCA junior guard Dewan Clayborn, seeing his first action since Dec. 10 because of injury, answered with a 3 with 1:35 left. UCA outscored OU 9-5 in the final 1:30, including a highlight reel buzzer-beater by Rutledge. The junior forward rebounded C.J. Washington’s missed free throw, drove to just short of midcourt and launched a 3-pointer that just beat the buzzer, pulling the Bears within 44-37 at the break.
"I looked up and said, "thank you, Lord,’’" Williamson said, "because things weren’t going well for us at that time. We had given them an opportunity to make a run and that shot gave us momentum going into the half. Our kids were down early, but when he hit that shot, it gave us something to build on for the second half."
With momentum on their side, senior guard Imad Qahwash brought the Bears back early in the second half, scoring UCA’s first seven points to close the gap to 46-44. OU went back ahead by as much as seven points on a 3-pointer by Clark with 7:50 remaining, but the Bears had a 7-0 run, capped by Clayborn’s long 3-pointer from the left wing that tied it at 62 with 4:47 remaining.
The Sooners scored six consecutive points for a six-point margin, but UCA came back from mthe perimeter with back-to-back 3s from senior Mike Pouncy and Qahwash to tie it again at 68-68 with three minutes remaining. OU got a three-point play from Andrew Fitzgerald and a layup by Blair to take a 73-68 lead.
Henson hit from the top of the key and UCA forced a turnover. Blair then made one of two at the line for a 74-70 margin and UCA missed two 3-point attempts under heavy pressure. Blair made one at the line and Clark made two of two before Clayborn nailed his fourth 3-pointer for the Bears to set the final at 76-73.
"Offensively, we were able to work the ball and get some shots in the second half,’ Williamson said. "Imad had the opportunity to attack off the dribble, get to the basket, and he was able to get to the foul line. We thought with the lineup we started the second half with, we would be able to attack and get some mismatches, and we did that early in the second half."
UCA had four players with at least 10 points, led by Qahwash with 15. Clayborn made four of six from 3-point range and added 13 points, while Henson scored 11 and Rutledge 10. The Bears tied their season high with 12 three-pointers, shooting 54.5 percent from three-point range, and shot 54.2 percent overall.
Clark topped the Sooners with 26 points, hitting 9 of 13 overall and four of six from beyond the arc. UCA’s defense held the Sooners to 45.8 percent in the second half.