After surviving a tough, road-heavy non-conference schedule, the University of Central Arkansas Bears will open Southland Conference play Saturday, where else but on the road at McNeese State.

The Bears (1-7) will take on the Cowboys (6-3) at 4 p.m. at Burton Coliseum, following the UCA-McNeese women’s game set for 1 p.m. The Cowboys have returned to their former home arena after hurricane damage to their three-year-old on-campus H&HP Complex earlier this year.

The Bears had just one home game and seven road games in the first two months of this strange, pandemic-influenced season, against a slate of four Power 5 schools, including their latest on Tuesday night at No. 2 Baylor. UCA head coach Anthony Boone said he and the Bears are looking forward to conference play, even though that also begins on the road.

“We certainly had some challenging games on the road,” said UCA head coach Anthony Boone. “And to do well in conference, we’ll have to face very similar environments and very similar challenges. But I think our guys kind of toughened up through that stretch. I think we got ready to compete whether we”re playing on the road or at home.”

The Bears swept the Cowboys last season, winning by 10 points (79-69) at home in January and then following that up with an 82-76 overtime victory in Lake Charles. UCA made a combined 27 three-pointers in the two contests, going 14 of 25 (56 percent) at home and 13 of 38 (34.2 percent) in the rematch. Then-junior guard DeAndre Jones went 6 of 7 from beyond the arc and scored a game-high 26 points in Game 1 at the Farris Center. Then-junior guard Rylan Bergersen topped the Bears with 21 points in the second meeting, while Eddy Kayouloud added 14 points and 11 rebounds.

“I do remember we shot the ball well, here at home especially,” said Boone. “On the road, we took probably a little too many threes and didn’t shoot it as well. Here at home we got some really good looks and DeAndre had a huge shooting game. So we’ll have to take better shots than we did in our game down there last year.”

The Cowboys are 6-3 overall but all six victories have come at home against non-Division I opponents, including consecutive victories over Champion Christian on Tuesday (94-36) and Wednesday (91-76). UCA also beat Champion Christian 92-28 on Dec. 19. Abilene Christian leads the SLC heading into conference play with an 8-2 record, followed by McNeese, Stephen F. Austin (3-2) and Sam Houston State (6-5) as the only teams with winning marks.

“I think from top to bottom, every team is pretty competitive, even the teams that typically haven’t done quite as well,” said Boone. “Everybody is competitive, it doesn’t matter who you are playing, it’s going to be a tough game day in and day out. So we’ll have to be on top of everything in every game we play no matter who we are playing.”

The Bears have been competitive in several of their Power 5 matchups this season, losing by 25 at Arkansas, by 14 at Ole Miss and by 16 at Mississippi State.

“I feel good about us,” Boone said. “I think at times we were frustrated with not being able to win some of the games we played in the non-conference. But I think we had some stretches of really good basketball and we got better in a lot of areas. So we’re pretty confident going into the conference.”

Boone said that while all games are important, conference play presents a different urgency than non-conference games.

“The guys are ready to go,” he said. “We take the same approach for every game, whether it”s conference or non-conference. But I think they all understand that these games really count, because they count toward getting to the conference tournament and to have a chance to possibly represent our conference at the NCAA Tournament.”

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