After nearly three weeks away, the Sugar Bears return to the Farris Center at 7 p.m. Friday to close out 2011 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
They will try to remain perfect at home this season.
Although happy to be back at home for the holidays and their final two contests before Southland Conference play begins Jan. 7, the Sugar Bears were in no great rush to end their last road trip — to the tropical island of New Providence and the Bahamian capital of Nassau for a pair of games in the Bahamas Sunshine Shootout.
In addition to coming away with a split on the court, the Sugar Bears came away with a unique team and cultural experience away from it.
"It was a great trip for everyone involved," Sugar Bear coach Matt Daniel said. "It was good from a basketball standpoint, getting to play two very challenging opponents; but more importantly our girls got to experience a country and lifestyle that most of us have never seen and may never see again. These returners deserved this trip; to accomplish the things they have is unspeakable. And for the freshmen to experience all of this, hopefully will be a testament to what the future might be."
Before playing on Dec. 20 and 21, the Sugar Bears had a practice day on the 19th and used part of that day to explore a bit of the island and ocean. After practicing early, the team spent much of the afternoon on a three-part snorkeling adventure that ended with the opportunity to swim with Caribbean reef sharks.
"Seeing all kinds of exotic fish, the sunken airplane from Jaws 4, the dock where ‘Flipper’ was filmed, and of course swimming with the sharks at the end, was just an unbelievable experience," Daniel said. "It was pretty neat for our entire team to be able to do all of that in just one day."
The Sugar Bears were able to accomplish one other thing on that trip — make new fans.
"It’s not every day you get to go out and gain fans in other parts of the world," Daniel said. "But we were able to do that, and that just added to our experience. From being out in Central Arkansas gear on the snorkeling trip, around the resort or in town, and even on the shuttles, we got the opportunity to talk about our team and our university to a lot of people who may have never been exposed to it otherwise. Some of the people we met have kids who want to come to the states for college, and now they know about the University of Central Arkansas and have some familiarity and connection -— even if small — with it. And our boat’s captain, Camio, came to both of our games and sat in the front row with our fans. That was pretty neat, and things like that are way more important wins than a tournament could bring."
The next two nights the Sugar Bears split games with High Point and Georgia Tech at the Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium, then packed up the next morning to head home. But not before one final photo opportunity on the beach with their youngest fan in attendance – Brayden Kemper, son of associate head coach Tony Kemper, who celebrated his second birthday that morning.
"We were thankful to have the birthday boy on the trip with us," Daniel said. "That is one cool two year-old. I don’t know about him, but I can’t think of a better way to spend my second birthday than on the beach in the Bahamas surrounded by people who love me."