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Conference play begins for UMHB men’s and women’s basketball Friday night

Above photo of Olivia Champion (left), by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru, Photo of Kyle Wright by Olivia Champion/@byoliviarayn

BELTON, Texas- The conference openers have arrived for the UMHB men’s and women’s basketball teams. 

Throughout the month of November, the Crusaders each tested their depth in non-conference play, with the women posting a 2-2 record, while the men put together a 4-0 record and earned a No. 11 ranking in the Top 25 poll, released Monday. 

Ozarks is the opponent for the 2021-22 ASC opening-contests, as the Eagles head to Belton on Friday night. The UMHB women tip-off at 6 p.m. at the Mayborn Campus Center followed by the men’s game at 8 p.m.. 

And unlike the Crusaders, both the men’s and women’s teams from Ozarks have already begun conference action. A swing through west Texas featured matchups with Howard Payne and Sul Ross State, as both fell to the Yellow Jackets of HPU on Nov. 9, before the women edged SRSU by a single point, 58-57, two nights later. The Ozarks men were defeated by five points against the Lobos, and fell to Concordia (TX) Thursday, meaning the Eagles carry an 0-3 ASC record into Belton Friday night. The Ozarks women 2-1 following Thursday’s 10-point win at Concordia (TX). 

It marks the first meeting between the two men’s teams while UMHB has been under the direction of second-year head coach Clif Carroll, as Ozarks was unable to take on the Cru in Clarksville last season due to Covid. The Eagles, however, were crowned ASC Champions two months later, as they hosted the conference tournament and defeated Louisiana College 74-72 in the title game. 

“They’re a different team this year,” UMHB men’s basketball head coach Clif Carroll said of Ozarks. ”They graduated four starters from last year’s team, so that will be a little different, but we’ve got enough film on them from this year and enough information. We’ll be ready.”

Carroll’s squad is coming off of a 110-91 victory over NCCAA program Arlington Baptist last Saturday, which kept UMHB undefeated. Josiah Johnson, who is No. 2 in the nation in points per game (32.0), tallied 40 points in the win, while forward Ty Prince nearly recorded a triple-double. But Carroll, while impressed by his squad’s scoring ability, is looking for more on the defensive end entering Friday’s matchup. 

“I want to see us focus defensively,” Carroll noted early in the week. “We haven’t put together a complete game defensively yet. We got up by 39 points at halftime against Arlington Baptist, then let them beat us by 20 in the second half. That was a little bit disappointing. I wanted us to continue our focus and continue to play well. We’re going to try to challenge our team defensively and see if we can put together a good effort for two halves on Friday.”

Throughout this week, UMHB women’s head coach Mark Morefield has been asking the same thing from his team, who opened the Rocky Mountain Thanksgiving Classic last Friday by allowing Colorado College to score 18 in the first quarter.  

“There’s going to be times when you’re not making shots,” Morefield said recently, “but I remember [Virginia men’s head coach] Tony Bennett saying this one time, ‘You’re not going to make shots every single time, but if your defense can stay engaged, and stay disciplined and execute, you’re going to stay deep in that game even when you’re not making shots.’ In the first quarter of that Colorado College game, we weren’t making shots but we also weren’t at our best defensively.” 

The Crusaders fought back to cut the deficit to just four points late in the second quarter, and while they ultimately fell 67-58, Morefield’s squad came back to defeat Nebraska Wesleyan the following day. Perhaps most impressive over the two game span was the performance of the bench, which scored 34 against Colorado College and 35 facing Neb. Wesleyan. In each of those games, UMHB’s leading scorer came off the bench. On Friday, it was Cheyanne Bonilla with 10 points. Alexia Martin tallied 12 points in 26 minutes on Saturday. 

“Our bench continues to produce,” Morefield said. “I think that’s going to be the separator for us. Can opponents come in and get 30 or 40 points from their bench? I haven’t seen everyone play, but I feel like I have a decent feel of the conference, and I’m going to have to say that I think we’re one of the only teams that can get 35-40 points from their bench. We’re going to continue to be fresh and we can keep hitting you with a variety of different lineups and looks.”

Using the bench to their advantage, Morefield has been impressed by the number of young players who have continued to develop each week in practice, including sophomore Jacqueline Cilliers and freshman Aja Holmes. The talent is there. Now it is just a matter of getting those players more game reps in order to gain experience, and improve on some of the “self-inflicted mistakes” that challenged the Cru against Colorado College. 

“Going back, you look at Friday’s game against Colorado College, we had a lot of self-inflicted mistakes,” Morefield said. “We have to be able to adjust and use basketball IQ on certain things. We don’t want to micromanage players. We want them to have some instinct as well. We have a good group of girls who do have instinct. But they’re also young. That takes nothing more than more playing.”

Similarly, Carroll has a number of young players who have broken into the rotation over the first six games (the Cru played two exhibitions in early November), and are expected to provide balance as the season goes on. Conference play features two games a week, which is demanding on any team. But having more depth than last season, a year in which UMHB went 13-0, is something  Carroll believes can keep his team dangerous throughout the next several months. 

“I think you’re going to start seeing our depth play out a little more with two games per week,” Carroll said. “That was our problem last year. We’d play well on Thursday then have a dip on Saturday because our depth wasn’t very good. 

“You’re going to see different guys step up. There’s not many teams that can sustain injuries to two starters (Carson Hammond and Gibson Hearne) and then go beat a team like ABU like we did. Once we start playing consistent games, you’re going to see our depth and our balance show up.”

Facing Ozarks, the reigning conference tournament champions, is what Carroll hopes begins the road to postseason success for his team. With an NCAA Tournament berth to play for this season, the ASC tournament takes on even more significance, and with so few at-large NCAA Tournament bids available, performing well in conference play can put a team in prime position when the ASC tournament finally rolls around. 

“In D-III, you can’t rely on being an at-large team,” Carroll said. “There’s only like 22 [at-large bids] out of 420 teams. We need to put our focus into winning the ASC tournament, getting that automatic bid and the best way to win a tournament is to host it. That starts now. You do that by taking it day by day, game by game, focusing on what is in front of you and being where your feet are.”

Morefield added, “I think we can feed off of what we did Saturday and keep that momentum going. If we can go 1-0 every week, we’ll put ourselves in the right position in the right place, and where we expect to be at the end of the season.”

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