Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- Even a month after the buzzer sounded in Abilene, the feeling of the three-point loss has not necessarily left the minds of those in the UMHB men’s basketball program.
On Dec. 11, Hardin-Simmons defeated the Crusaders 80-77, handing UMHB its first regular season conference loss since Feb. 15, 2020. But as is customary with the American Southwest Conference schedule, UMHB has an opportunity at avenging that loss. And this time, the contest will be played on the Cru’s home court.
“We were still a work in progress at that point,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll said Tuesday, looking back on the challenging defeat. “We were trying to put some pieces together. We know we’re better now. We know we can win this game at home.”
That “game” is set for this evening at the Mayborn Campus Center in Belton, where tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CT, and No. 21 UMHB (13-2, 8-2 ASC) hosts HSU (12-3, 7-3), in a key conference matchup.
The Cru is a half-game back from LeTourneau, who currently sits atop the ASC standings at 9-2, with HSU and UT-Dallas just behind at 7-3.
When asked about the difference in that early-season conference duel in December, Carroll did not hesitate: the offense was not up to standard. But in the nine games since, the team’s offensive attack has moved away from its reliance on a couple of scorers, and into a well-oiled unit that enters tonight’s game averaging 87.9 points per game, second-best in the ASC.
“It was a little frustrating when we played them the first time,” Carroll said of HSU. “We clearly didn’t have our best foot forward offensively.
“[HSU] goes out there with so much size and length. It makes it hard on a lot of teams. But we’re one of the teams that really can combat them with size. We just have to stick to our game plan and play with confidence from taking great shots. We should be fine.”
The Crusaders come off a dominant 85-59 victory at Ozarks in Clarksville, Ark., a week ago, in which four players scored in double figures and the team shot 45.2 percent from the field. That was without high-flying guard Josiah Johnson, who averages 26.0 points per game, but was unavailable for the contest. Carroll said Johnson will be ready for tonight’s matchup.
UMHB forced an impressive 30 points off 21 turnovers, turning defense into offense in what Carroll noted was a confidence booster for the team.
“Offensively, we struggled a little bit, but covered it up by creating 30 points off turnovers,” Carroll said of the win at Ozarks. “It’s one of the goals for a lot of teams, to win games in a lot of different ways. So you lose your guy who averages 26, but we can manufacture those points and win in a different style.”
The fluidity on both ends of the floor is a byproduct of the cohesion that has formed throughout the recent part of this season, Carroll said Tuesday, as several players have emerged into consistent pieces of the team’s success in a variety of ways. Last Thursday, it was guard Kyle Wright who tallied a 19-point, four-rebound, three-steal performance, while forward Luke Feely dished out four assists in addition to his 11 points and five boards. Forward Ty Price, the team’s second-highest scorer at 16.8 points per game, pulled down six rebounds, three of which came on the offensive end and contributed to 13 second chance points.
“You look at the cohesion, and it’s so much better,” Carroll said. “We’ve had guys step into roles, Luke has emerged as that third guy offensively, and one of our main guys defensively. The addition of DJ Kane is big in adding depth at the guard spot. Kyle is playing up to his potential.
“Last time we played [HSU], it was the Josiah and Ty show. Right now, we’re playing a lot more well-rounded and balanced.”
That balance can challenge HSU, though the Cowboy defense is likely the best UMHB has faced up to this point, considering it allows just 72.5 points per game. That is the fewest in the ASC, and a result of the Cowboys’ aggressive man-to-man defense.
Forward Steven Quinn and guard Aidan Walsh are the only two players who have started all 15 of HSU’s games this season, and not surprisingly, have served as the Cowboys’ backbone for much of this season. Both upperclassmen, Walsh, a junior, and Quinn, a senior, lead the team in virtually every statistical category, along with their invaluable collegiate experience. Quinn averages 18.2 points and 1.6 steals per game, while Walsh posts 10.2 points and 2.2 assists per contest.
The number of talented players on both sides brings about the expectation of a high-quality conference showdown, though playing at home is certainly an advantage in UMHB’s favor.
Following three straight road games, getting back inside the Mayborn Campus Center is something the Crusaders gladly welcome, especially in a matchup of this caliber. Carroll hopes for a notable turnout, with students back on campus, and the tradition of the rivalry with HSU.
“This is why you come to college to play basketball,” Carroll said. “Hopefully we get a great turnout from our student body and from the community. This is our time to play against a good team at home. We look forward to having everybody out. I tell you what, whenever we go to Hardin-Simmons, they give it to us. So let’s give a little bit back to them.”
Admission to tonight’s contest is free. UMHB continues ASC play Saturday at 3 p.m., hosting McMurry (6-9, 4-6 ASC).
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru, and also covers UMHB athletics for The Belton Journal. He can be emailed at email@example.com.