CLARKSVILLE, Arkansas- The disappointment on their faces, the silence in the locker room postgame, the heads hanging and the desperation shots late said it all.
It has been said that all streaks must come to an end, but the UMHB men’s basketball team did not envision its 13-game conference winning streak ending this way; not in an 89-72 loss to No. 2 East Seed Louisiana College in the ASC Tournament semifinals on Sunday afternoon.
“They have to understand that they can be beat,” said UMHB head coach Clif Carroll postgame. “We were feeling invincible. We were rolling and we lost our sense of urgency and the chip on our shoulder.”
Maybe it was the idea of playing in an unfamiliar setting at Ozarks, the fact that the Cru had gone eight days without playing a game, or the immense pressure to win it all that challenged the visitors from Belton throughout the contest. But as much as those three things may have factored into the loss, Carroll felt that it was Louisiana College and the Wildcats’ fast-paced play that stunned the Cru, especially in the first half.
“I think Louisiana College had a lot to do with it,” said Carroll. “They came out playing extremely well, and had a great game plan. They played hard and played with a lot of confidence. I think the reason we struggled was Louisiana College first and foremost.”
The Cru opened the game shooting the ball with confidence, though the defense failed to generate stops in the first 10 minutes of play. After Louisiana College’s Galen Smith got a jumper to go 1:22 in the contest to put the Wildcats up 2-0, UMHB’s Josiah Johnson knocked down two free throws, tying the score. Freshman guard Gibson Hearne connected from three-point range on UMHB’s ensuing possession, giving the Cru a 5-2 advantage. At the 11:33 mark, the score was tied at 14, though Louisiana College mounted a run that changed the course of the game, scoring 12 of the next 16 points to take a 29-20 lead. The final two minutes of the half saw UMHB go 0-for-5 shooting, including three misses from behind the arc.
The Wildcats still led by nine at the half, 35-26, and scored seven answered coming out of the locker room in the second period of play. As Louisiana College led by 16, 42-26, it was evident that the halftime intermission had not done much to relieve the Cru’s first-half shooting woes. UMHB, obviously sensing what lay ahead if it could not rally, suddenly began to connect as the momentum swung in the direction of the Cru. Highlighted by six points from forward Ty Prince and two three-pointers from guard Carson Hammond, UMHB pieced together an impressive 17-3 run to erase Louisiana College’s double-digit lead and take a 59-56 advantage with 8:48 left to play. The run culminated on a long three from Hammond, who made three straight from beyond the arc to begin the second half after going 0-for-5 shooting in the first 20 minutes of action.
“We made the run to comeback and tie it up but then made some very bad mental mistakes defensively,” said Carroll. “In order to win a game you got to play 40 minutes. You got to stay focused and we had some terrible lapses defensively towards the end of the game.
One of those ‘mental mistakes’ included leaving forward KJ Bilbo wide open on Louisiana College’s next possession, as the senior swished a three to tie the score and ignited an 8-0 scoring run that was instrumental in holding off UMHB’s comeback bid.
On top of the defensive lapses, the Cru went ice cold shooting in the final seven minutes, partially due to the fact that their bread-and-butter dribble-drive style of offensive did not work against the Wildcats.
“Offensively, we were expecting them to just let us score,” said Carroll. “Louisiana College did a great job of guarding our dribble-drive and making Josiah and Ty have a hard time getting to the rim. In the first half, Carson, Aedan [Welch], Gibson and Kyle [Wright] had a hard time making shots.
“We’ve talked about it all year long about having to find another way to score other than a dribble-drive offense. Today it cost us.”
Prince stood out for the Cru on both ends of the floor though he did struggle at times, and perservered to lead the team with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. Johnson finished his high-scoring season with 20 points and Hearne had a career-high 16 points. Welch finished his collegiate career quietly, scoring just three points, though he pulled down 12 rebounds.
The loss ends UMHB’s season with a 16-4 record, while Louisiana College will face Ozarks in the conference championship game on Monday night.
It was a loss few saw coming, but as Carroll noted postgame, the level of basketball in March in a “win or go home” type of game, raises the level of play. No team can be overlooked, no matter what the odds may be.
“You have to learn, when you get to the tournament, playing against an older team like Louisiana College, you have to execute and you have to play hard,” said Carroll. “Today Louisiana College just outplayed us.
“We didn’t play our best game, and we’ve been playing so well for so long, it is just a shame that we get to the tournament and kind of have a letdown.”