KATY, Texas — The University of Central Arkansas Bears carried their late-season momentum into the postseason Wednesday, beating the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders 73-52 in the first round of the 2019 Southland Conference Tournament at the Merrell Center.
No. 7 seeded UCA (14-18) won for the fourth time in its past five games and advanced to the quarterfinals to face third-seeded Southeastern Louisiana at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
"I thought our guys really competed hard, I thought we played extremely hard,” said UCA coach Russ Pennell, who saw his team win their tournament opener for the second straight year. "I thought we showed some maturity. That's one thing with this team, we've kind of gone through some struggles, some ups and downs, but a lot of that has just been the youth of our team. We had a seven-game losing streak, and I think we lost our confidence. I never did doubt our abilities, I never did doubt our talents. I just thought our confidence had waned.
"And then about two weeks ago, it started making sense. One of our seniors, Jordan Grant, made a good comment the other day. He said, 'our tournament started at Sam Houston last week.' We had to win, and we've kind of been in that mode. So, I thought tonight was just an extension of what we've been doing.”
The Bears got 21 points from senior guard Thatch Unruh, including a 10 of 10 performance at the free-throw line.
UCA finished 23 of 29 at the foul line compared to 6 of 6 for the Islanders (14-18).
When the Islanders won the regular-season matchup in Corpus Christi back on Jan. 2, they made 27 free throws to UCA's 10.
"Our whole scout was to limit their paint touches,” Unruh said. "Because they are really good when they can throw it inside and get their bigs some opportunities. They really look to drive the ball well and get to the foul line. That was the huge difference in the first time we played them, they just killed us from the free-throw line because they were super aggressive getting in the paint.
"I thought we did a really good job of controlling the paint and making them shoot tough shots. It was just the (good) scout and then we went out there and executed it.”
Unruh was one of four Bears in double figures, with sophomore center Hayden Koval adding his third double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds, sophomore Matthew Mondesir chipping in 13 points and sophomore guard DeAndre Jones filling his stat line with 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
The Bears grabbed a 36-25 halftime lead behind 12 points from Unruh and five 3-pointers from four different players.
Jashawn Talton scored 17 of A&M-CC's first-half 25 points, but the Bears shut him out in the second half.
All-SLC guard Kareem South was also stymied, going 1 for 9 from the field for just four points.
"That was definitely our focus at halftime, to shut him down because he did have more than half their points,” said Unruh, a fifth-year senior from Branson, Missouri. "We did a good job of collective effort in the second half. Everybody was aware when he got the ball, we pinched in because he did a really good job of driving to the basket in the first half. So stopping him was key to keeping that lead in the second half.”
The Bears led the entire second half although the Islanders rallied midway through the half and cut the deficit to four points at 42-38 before the Bears took control again and put the game away.
UCA sealed it by going 16 of 22 from the free-throw line in the second half.
"We knew this would be a tough game,” Pennell said. "We didn't play particularly well down there the first time, but it was the first game of the conference season, so it seems like it was almost seasons ago. I thought our assistant coaches, especially Anthony Boone, had a really good game plan. We basically tried to take away their drives, and I thought that worked the majority of the time.”
The Bears and Lions split their regular-season games, with each road team winning.
The winner of Thursday's game will take on No. 2 seed Abilene Christian at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the semifinals.