KATY, Texas — The University of Central Arkansas Bears found the right recipe down the stretch Wednesday night to make history.
With the Bears trailing by nine midway through the second half, coach Russ Pennell called a timeout and the players discovered a lockdown defense.
The sixth-seeded Bears held the seventh-seeded Lamar Cardinals to seven points over the last 11:41 on the way to a 67-57 victory in the first round of the Southland Conference tournament at the Merrell Center. Lamar had just one field goal in the final nine minutes.
The victory was the first for a UCA team in two trips to the tournament here.
UCA faced second-seeded Stephen F. Austin late Thursday night.
UCA held Lamar to just 37.1 percent shooting from the field and just 15.4 percent (4 of 26) from three-point range. In the two games this season against the Bears, Lamar had shot 8 of 57 (14 percent) from beyond the arc.
“I think it was the type of game that maybe we needed, it was just a gut-check," said Pennell, who brought his team to the SLC Tournament for the second consecutive year, a first for UCA’s men’s program. “We got down and we took a time out and and I grabbed Mathieu Kamba and I said ‘You’re a senior and your career is about to end. You need to do something.' And from that point on, he was light’s out."
UCA senior Jordan Howard, named the SLC Player of the Year on Monday, finished with a game-high 26 points, going nine of 10 from the free-throw line, including 6 of 6 in the final 47 seconds. Freshman Matthew Mondesir finished with 12 points, while Mathieu Kamba and Thatch Unruh had 11 each.
But more importantly, a combination of Mondesir, Kamba and senior Ethan Lee held Lamar’s first-team All-SLC forward Colton Weisbrod to just five points after he scored a career-high 38 in the first meeting. He made 16 free throws in the first game and one on Wednesday.
“That was an interesting game from our perspective," said Pennell. “Because as we build this program, you have to go through different steps. Last year when we were here, I thought we were just glad to be here. And I even felt yesterday in practice that there was a different feel about our team, because these guys, especially Mathieu and Jordan and Ethan, who have been here before, they fully intended on coming down here and winning this first game."
The Bears, outscored 17-6 to start the second half, fought their way back into the game with two baskets by Unruh, layups by Kamba and Mondesir and a jumper by Howard that tied it at 50 at the 10-minute mark. From there, it was all UCA, with the Bears getting a key three-pointer and a rebound basket from 7-foot freshman center Hayden Koval in a span of 1:30. Over the final 1:25, Kamba put in a rebound basket and Howard nailed six free throws in a row to end it.
“When we got down nine and took the time out, I got on them a little bit," said Pennell. “But I challenged them more that you’re letting an opportunity slip through your hands. And I knew it wasn’t anything more than effort. It wasn’t like their schemes or our lack of schemes. It was just we had to give a little bit more effort."