Above image provided by the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- Belton was the place to be if you were a D3 men’s basketball fan on Saturday, as the top two teams in the American Southwest Conference (ASC) went head-to-head in a game that lived up to its hype.
Powered by a great offensive effort in the second half, the UMHB men’s basketball team won its ninth straight conference game, defeating East division leader East Texas Baptist, 86-81, to remain undefeated in ASC play.
“I was proud of them, particularly in the second half,” said UMHB head coach Clif Carroll. “I felt like we had to fight back from adversity, we really had to take control and defensively get stops and put together some runs. I felt like it’s been a while since we’d been truly tested. We knew it was going to be tough, the kids stepped up.”
From the opening tip, it seemed that the undefeated Crusaders had met their match. Carroll’s squad had not been tested in the way that it was on Saturday, as the contest was back-and-forth, with the opponents trading buckets early on. Neither team could pull away in the fast-paced first half, with ETBU running a full-court press and UMHB shooting 47 percent from three-point range.
After ETBU went on a 5-0 run midway through the first half, UMHB’s Aedan Welch knocked down a three from the right corner, his textbook jump shot swishing through the net as the game was tied up at 21 apiece. Carson Hammond followed that up minutes later by posting up, and using pure strength to lay the ball off the glass, giving the Cru a 23-21 advantage. Seconds later it was Hammond again, hitting a long-range three. He would fire from the same place on the floor with just over three minutes to go, again connecting to put the Cru up 31-26.
However, just as quick as the Cru had taken the five point lead, ETBU’s Logan Blow drove to the lane, launching about three feet from the rim, slamming home a dunk to cut the deficit to one.
UMHB managed to put six more points on the board behind a couple of jumpers from short-range, and headed to the half up 37-32.
A strong defensive effort in the opening minutes of the second half allowed ETBU to retake the lead, as Jayden Williams knocked down a three to put the Tigers in the lead, 38-37. In fact, UMHB was held scoreless for the first three minutes of the second half, before Hammond was fouled on a three-point attempt. The Belton native calmly swished all three free-throws, though ETBU knocked down a three on the ensuing possession to lead 45-40. The lead may have grown to seven, but junior Ty Prince wasn’t about to let that happen. He swatted away an ETBU floater, igniting a loud roar from the home crowd.
Still, ETBU did not cool off when it came to shooting and held a 10 point lead with 14:02 left in the second half, thanks to a 20-5 run to begin the second period of play.
“We go down by 10 because we don’t rebound and we turn it over,” said Carroll. “The majority of their points were off of turnovers and their offensive rebounds. We know we can control that.”
In a highlight-reel type play midway through the second half, Prince swatted away a short-range shot from Blow, gathering the ball in and getting it to Johnson, who raced into the front court and laid the ball in. It was that play that ignited a rally from the Cru, as the momentum quickly shifted in the direction of UMHB. A minute later, Prince slammed home a two-handed dunk, as the entire UMHB bench jumped onto its feet. The 10-point lead that ETBU had held became ancient history by the 11:04 mark, with Prince scoring yet again for the Cru, laying the ball off the glass to put UMHB in front, 53-52.
With the fans on their feet as quick-tempo music echoed through the Mayborn Campus Center minutes later, and the two teams came out of a timeout, the Crusaders walked onto the floor prepared for battle. 10 minutes to keep the perfect record intact. They did not want to think about the alternative.
Battle they did, as the two teams traded shots for the final eight minutes of the contest. Both sides took advantage of their timeouts in a contest that closely resembled a chess match. The head coaches, with a clipboard in one hand and a dry-erase marker in the other, put into play everything that had been practiced throughout the week, drawing up plays for their teams to follow, hoping that at least of few of them might open up the floor and give their squad an open look, something hard to come by in a game such as this one.
Try as they might, the Tigers of ETBU could not hold back UMHB’s lethal offensive attack, perhaps best demonstrated on a huge one-handed dunk from Prince with just over four minutes left, as the forward leaped high over multiple ETBU defenders to slam the ball home, giving UMHB a 74-66 advantage.
The confidence exhibited by UMHB in those final minutes masked any possible worries that the home squad might not walk away with the victory, as the Cru showed the poise of a veteran team, breaking ETBU’s full-court press with ease.
“This team is really starting to come together,” said Carroll. “It starts right here with Aedan Welch. He’s our senior, and it’s his last ride, so we try to make sure he has the best experience. It is just togetherness. We have a great group of guys, they’re fighting together, they’re playing really good defensively. It’s been pretty fun to watch.”
Though the Tigers had a height advantage, UMHB showed tremendous toughness, as the Cru tied ETBU in the “battle on the boards”, with each team pulling down 32 rebounds. Both squads were able to transform the numerous trips to the free-throw line into points, with the visitors from Marshall going a perfect 12-of-12 from the charity stripe, and the Crusaders making 18-of-22 attempts.
“We just played hard, that’s what it comes down to,” said Carroll. “One of the most overrated guys in college basketball is height. I’d rather have a kid that’s tough and will play with teammates any day, [over a kid who has height]. I’d take Aedan Welch over a 6’10 guy any day. He’s a fighter and competes everyday.”
Five different Crusaders scored in double figures, with Johnson turning it on in the second half, finishing with a team-best 23 points. Hammond had 18 points, with half of those coming from behind the arc. Prince had 15 points on the day, and Welch chipped in with 13. Freshman Gibson Hearne, getting his first start of the season, scored a career-high 10 points.
Also notable, point guard Byrale Carter did not play, and had a boot on. Carroll said postgame that the senior from Killeen, Texas, “is done” for the season. It will be evaluated in the coming months as to whether Carter will return for a sixth season next year.
Coming up next for UMHB is a rematch with Sul Ross State, scheduled for Thursday at 7:30 p.m. CT in Belton. The last time the two teams met, the Cru defeated the Lobos 83-75.