Just when the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears seemed to be putting the icing on the cake for a title celebration at the Farris Center, Lamar University stole the cake.
Or rather, the Sugar Bears let it slip through their fingers.
Leading 53-48 with 2:26 left, the Sugar Bears turned the ball over four times in the final 1:44, allowing the Lady Cardinals (16-11, 11-5) to surge to a 56-53 victory and complicate the Southland Conference women’s race with two games to go.
UCA (18-9, 12-4), who lost a conference game on their home court for the first time this season, now have a one-game lead over Lamar and Stephen F. Austin for the top spot. A victory would have clinched at least a tie for the regular-season championship for the UCA women and a bye into the semifinals of the postseason tournament. They now close the season with road trips to Northwestern State and SFA.
"We now have to go on the road against two great teams; we could go from first to sixth," said UCA coach Sandra Rushing, obviously displeased with her team’s play down the stretch.
Other than Gia Ayers’ long 3-pointer with 1:44 left that drew the Lady Cardinals within 53-51, the Lamar women did nothing spectacular in the final moments except being able to take advantage of the Sugar Bears’ gifts.
As Lamar began pressing with intensity, UCA had a shot clock violation, threw the ball right to a defender, forced a pass over the top of the defense that resulted in another turnover and gave the ball up on a palming violation.
A uncontested jump shot in the paint by JaMeisha Edwards gave Lamar a 55-53 lead with 45 seconds left, and a free throw by Edwards after the palming violation allowed Lamar to hold off the Sugar Bears, who were outscored 9-2 in the final 2:31.
"Mental mistakes; our youth showed," Rushing said. "If you are going to play at this level of Division-I basketball, we need to learn how to play smart basketball and handle it. We go over these situations in practice. They (the Lady Cardinals) wanted it more."
The Sugar Bears led almost the entire game, by eight points twice.
The Lady Cardinals, who shot 31.4 percent from the field, managed to hang around, primarily on the outside shooting of Ayers, who was five of seven from 3-point range on the way to 23 points.
UCA had a 22-12 advantage in points off turnovers, but that was deceptive with the late problems.
The game was the final home game for UCA seniors Courtney Duever, who, had 21 points and 15 rebounds and seven-of-11 shooting, and Micah Rice, who had a point and five rebounds. Brittany Agee added 10 points for the Sugar Bears.
The UCA women were two of 15 from 3-point range.
They will play Northwestern State on Thursday night in Natchiotoches, La.