By DAVID MCCOLLUM
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
After two victories last week, the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears are 5-2 in the Southland Conference, a game behind Lamar (5-1) and a game and a half behind McNeese State (6-1).
It hasn’t been easy.
Three games ago, Lamar came from behind in the final minute to edge the Sugar Bears at the wire in the Farris Center. The Sugar Bears won on the road at Southeastern Louisiana in the final seconds. Then, UCA went overtime at home to take a 74-73 victory Saturday over McNeese State, the Cowgirls’ first conference loss.
"I’m remember from playing in my junior high days; conference play is just difficult — at any level," said Sugar Bear coach Matt Daniel at Monday’s weekly Bearbackers luncheon.
Daniel also noted that McNeese State had to rally on the road for a one-point victory over Nicholls, a team the Sugar Bears defeated handily and has only one conference victory.
"There may not be much difference from the top and bottom of our division," Daniel said. "McNeese is really good. They are the most disciplined and best defensive team we’ve played all year or maybe I’ve seen. They don’t make a lot of mistakes and you have to capitalize on the ones they make."
The Sugar Bears, who host Northwestern State on Wednesday night, are 7-2 in their last nine games, both losses coming to Lamar. Of their remaining nine games, four are at home and five are on the road.
"I know that since Christmas, I haven’t had as much fun coaching as coaching this group of women," Daniel said.
UCA, which defeated Southeastern Lousiana then lost to McNeese State, has used 12 different lineup combinations this season, which some stat freaked has ranked third in the nation.
The constant has been Mark Rutledge, the only player to have started every game. In playing 36 minutes in a 70-63 loss McNeese, Rutledge had one of his best games with 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists, one block and two steals.
"In the NBA, we used to call that a stat-sheet stuffer," UCA coach Corliss Williamson said. "He pops up everywhere."
The Bears are 5-15 overall, 1-6 in conference. Williamson has tried to spot the positives in the recent games.
"We’ve outrebounded our last two opponents and we had only eight turnovers against McNeese, so that is taking good care of the basketball," Williamson said.
In a frantic surge in the final minutes against McNeese, the Bears forced six turnovers. But on one possession late trailing by five, UCA missed a 3-pointer, the putback attempt on the offensive rebound, another putback and a 3-point shot.
"To be right there and to not get within two or three points is tough to swallow," he said. "I’m proud of my team for not folding, but if we had gotten within two, we might have been able to put more pressure on McNeese."
UCA closed a victory over Southeastern Louisina with a 12-4 run. During that stretch, the Lions were two of 13 from the field and the Bears had nine rebounds, four of them by Conway’s Terry Tidwell.
"We found a way to win," Williamson said. "In most of our losses, we have had a period in the second half in which we had given up points and did not score the basketball. When we have gotten a lead, we haven’t found a way to extend it. We’ve got to understand that when we have a team down, we have to take them out."
The Bears have two games on the road this week — Wednesday against Northwestern State and Saturday afternoon at Texas-Arlington. The UTA game will begin at noon to give the Bears a little time to get on the road back home before heavier traffic hits connected with the Super Bowl being played in the same area.