Arkansas-Little Rock wins Sun Belt title
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Arkansas-Little Rock's record-breaking season will include an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans made sure of that after a tongue-lashing from coach Chris Beard at halftime of the Sun Belt Tournament championship game.
Roger Woods scored 19 points and the Trojans (29-4) punched their ticket with a dominant second half, beating Louisiana-Monroe 70-50 on Sunday. Along the way, they extended their school mark for victories in a season and tied a Sun Belt conference record.
Trailing 33-28 at halftime, the Trojans raised their defensive intensity several notches and went on an 18-4 run to take control.
''What Coach says, he means,'' Woods said. ''We started out kind of slow in the first half, and he wanted us to pick it up and play together as a team.''
Beard immediately turned to Woods and thanked him for ''having my back'' in his description of the verbal tirade.
''At halftime I didn't like our body language or our demeanor in the locker room, so we had an aggressive face-to-face talk,'' Beard said. ''We've had some special halves, but this is one of them. We were dialed in defensively, and offensively that's about as well as we can execute.''
Woods gave Arkansas-Little Rock the lead for good at 37-35, faking an outside shot and driving for an emphatic dunk with 15:01 left.
Marcus Johnson Jr. hit an open 3-pointer as the Trojans took their first double-digit lead, 53-42, at the 8:06 mark.
Woods, the tournament MVP, hit eight of 10 shots and added nine rebounds, scoring 15 points in the second half. Johnson added 14 points for top-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock, which was picked fifth in the Sun Belt coaches' preseason poll but congealed quickly under Beard in his first season.
''We've put in a lot of work every day,'' said Jalen Jackson, a junior college transfer who had 11 points in a reserve role. ''It's paying off right now.''
Justin Roberson had 17 points for second-seeded Louisiana-Monroe (20-13), which entered the final on a 10-game winning streak and having won 14 of its last 15 after a 6-11 start.
Getting little room to operate, the flustered Warhawks never recovered after committing four quick turnovers and missing their first six shots of the second half. They hit 6 of 25 after going 14 of 24 in the first half.
The closest they came in the last 8 minutes was nine points, and they could not capitalize on Arkansas-Little Rock's rare mistakes.
When Josh Hagins' pass on the perimeter was intercepted, Louisiana-Monroe gave the ball right back when an outlet pass was tipped off a player's leg and out of bounds.
''We've been a good offensive team this year because we've made shots,'' coach Keith Richard said. ''Without any shot-making there in the second half, tension started to build up a little bit.''
The Trojans began celebrating after Kemy Osse's 3-pointer from the corner made it 64-50. They entered the tournament with an outside shot at at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament thanks to road victories over San Diego State and Tulsa, but they erased any doubt about their destination.
In the final seconds, Woods dribbled out the clock and held on to the ball during the celebration on the court. He and Hagins, the Trojans' leading scorers for the seniors, are seniors who stuck out the transition from former coach Steve Shields to Beard.
After beating Louisiana-Monroe by one point at home and losing to the Warhawks on the road, the Trojans were prepared for a 40-minute battle.
''Monroe is the best team we've played this year,'' Beard said. ''I got no sleep last night knowing this was going to be a difficult game. Our players deserve all the credit.''
Johnson, Hagins, Roberson and Woods were joined on the all-tournament team by Majok Deng of Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette's Shawn Long, the Sun Belt regular season player of the year.
Arkansas-Little Rock: Hagins, the Trojans' leading scorer for the season, had five points and went 2 for 7 from the field. ... Arkansas-Little Rock is returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and the second time since 1990.
Louisiana-Monroe: The Warhawks had five chances to finish three-point plays in the first half but missed the free throw on the first four before Roberson finally made one. ... Roberson and guard Nick Coppola played all 40 minutes, and Richard used only seven players, but he said fatigue was not a factor in the Warhawks' second game in less than 24 hours.
Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans will play in the NCAA Tournament.
Louisiana-Monroe: The Warhawks will be in a postseason tournament, probably the CIT or CBI.