ABEAUMONT, Texas — The University of Central Arkansas defense, jabbed and pummeled against the ropes the first half, produced the knockout blow Saturday afternoon in a fierce tussle against Lamar University.


Safety Jestin Love intercepted a pass and juked and cut his way into the end zone, running about 50 yards for a 31-yard touchdown with 2:07 left to preserve the Bears’ 38-24 victory over the Cardinals before 15,367 at Provost Umphrey Stadium.


Lamar dinked and dunked and nickled and dimed the UCA defenders dizzy on their first three possessions to drive 80 yards in 12 plays and 59 in 11 for a 14-0 lead then drove 88 yards in 11 plays to Justin Stout’s 28-yard field goal for a 17-7 advantage  wih 5:12 left in the half.


“It seems like we have to have our backs to the wall before we start playing our best,” said UCA cornerback Desmond Wilcox, who was playing in his hometown against some former high school teammates and rivals.
“We started slow on defense again; same story, second verse of the Nicholls State game (where the Bears didn’t lead at the half),” said UCA coach Clint Conque, whose team won its fourth straight. “The offense kept pace. We didn’t punt at all the first half and that was important because we were struggling defensively. But we came on and played very well except for the one touchdown drive in the second half. We continued to find ways to win and we had some playmakers step up and make some plays tonight.”


The victory kept the Bears in the thick of the Southland Conference race at 5-3, 4-1.


UCA took its first lead after Jerrell McKnight batted away a pass by Killin Kahler on a fake punt at the Lamar 32. Bobo got the ball to the 12, where Nathan Dick hit Jesse Grandy for the touchdown to put UCA up 24-17 at 10:40 of the second half.


The score was tied at 24 after Jeremy Johnson, the second quarterback used by Lamar, broke for a 55-yard touchdown run with 6:00 left in the third quarter.


The Bears went to an old-school rushing game with Terence Bobo and Anthony Blackmon handling the pounding. That set up a 35-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Dick to Al Lasker that gave the Bears the lead for good at 31-24 at the end of the third quarter. The Bears rushed for 168 yards on 38 attempts.


“We put the load on our running backs and line and they made it good,” Conque said. “As we continued to move the ball on the ground, that forced their defense to move in more and gave us some things to exploit.”


One of the Bears’ best drives of the afternoon didn’t produce points but milked the clock.


Leading 31-24, they took over on their 15 and, using eight runs by Bobo, a reverse by Grandy and an 8-yard pass to fullback Chris McKnight took 13 plays to drive to the Lamar 35. That drive started with 9:21 left in the game and finished with 2:26 remaining.


Then, Love sealed things with his interception, his third for a touchdown his career.


“He makes plays, has good hands and knows what to do with the football,” Conque said. “Our players were yelling for him to ‘get down, get down’ but I told them, ‘That dude’s not getting down; he’s going to try to score.”


The interception occurred against Bevil, who had not played in the second half because of a slight ankle injury.
Lamar coach Ray Woodard said he had determined that Bevil, who aggravated UCA with his runs and scramble passes, would only be used in an emergency situation in the second half. “We put him in at the end because he was more experienced in hurry-up situtions,” Woodard said.


Bevil, a senior, passed 13 yards to Payden McVey to cap an 80-yard drive on the Cardinals’ first posession. He then passed to Marcus Jackson to complete the 59-yard , 11-play drive on the next possession. Both drives consumed more than five minutes. Lamar kept the ball 11:03 of the first quarter.


UCA closed the gap as Dick completed passes to Dominque Croom and Al Lasker to set up Jackie Hinton’s 1-yard touchdown run with 14:26 left in the second quarter.


The game turned on a 14-yard punt return by Jesse Grandy to the UCA 49. Dick then lofted a screen pass to Bobo. The Lamar defense seemed to ease along the sideline and Bobo had a clear field for a 51-yard touchdown that tied the score at 17 at the half.


After the touchdown burst by Johnson, a freshman, the UCA defense applied more pressure and kept the Cards out of gear.


One of playmakers was Wilcox, who had 11 tackles.


“It was amazing (playing in his hometown),” Wilcox said. “I played against eight or 10 or those guys in high school. We chatted on the field, just friendly stuff. I had about 20 or 30 family members here. The adrenaline was really flowing coming back here.”


“Our kids scrapped and played physical and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Conque said. “We kept ourselves relevant in the conference race by week 9.”


The Bears return for homecoming against Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday.