A look back: 1986 UALR Trojans finished off Centenary and rolled into their first NCAA Tournament


Chapter XIV: Champions
   On paper, UALR had a cakewalk in the TAAC championship game against Centenary. But Newell was taking nothing for granted.
   The Gents had to beat Houston Baptist 84-81 on the road just to advance to Little Rock. Centenary then beat Samford in Friday’s late game to advance to the championship in true Cinderella fashion.
   “Why is Centenary here?” Canterbury asked. “We’ve got a losing record and we’re at the bottom of every statistic except turnover margin, whatever that is supposed to stand for. I was on my way fishing when I saw the lights on at the gymnasium.”
   Only one conference winner had won the postseason tournament -- Houston Baptist in 1984. UALR would also have to beat Centenary for a third time.
   “I don’t worry about that three-time crap,” said Newell, who had the team stay at The Excelsior after the Mercer game. “You people are the ones who keep bringing that stuff up. We don’t worry about the past. This is a different regime with different circumstances, a different program. I’m only concerned with the last two years.”
   Centenary was hot and had highly-touted players Gene Vandenlangenburg, who most just called “Vandy” and “Bobo” Thomas.
  “In the past, we’ve constructed junk defenses to try and take care of them, but if the two of them hook up together, we’ll be in trouble,” Newell said.
   KTHV-TV Channel 11 had been one of the best local supporters for the Trojans. Morgan was a sports anchor and reporter there and the station had aired “The Mike Newell Show” each Sunday night at 10:30 for the entire season. They gave UALR another shot in the arm by agreeing to air the championship game live
  “This will be a first for our state’s sports fans,” then KTHV General Manager Robert L. Brown said. “This is the first time the TAAC Championships have been broadcast live to an Arkansas audience.”
   How much this would affect attendance wasn’t known. The Statehouse had held as many as 4,900 for a basketball game that season and UALR brought in an additional 800 seats for the weekend.
Sports anchors Morgan, the longtime voice of the Trojans on radio, and Ray Tucker, the current voice of the Trojans on radio, called the game. KTHV went all out, renting a fully-loaded truck with four studio cameras and all the bells and whistles.
Watch the opening for KTHV's broadcast

   “Outside of the University of Arkansas, no university has had a basketball game telecast statewide by a local station. We are proud to be a part of that,” Brown said. “Advertisers have responded well. We have been pleasantly surprised at the interest, but I guess we shouldn’t have been. Mike’s show this season has been great.”
   There seemed to be some tension early on as Mark Byrd announced the starting lineups in alternating fashion. Myers slapped Fred McNealy’s hand so hard it was audible to those watching at home.
   “Last year, everybody picked us near last [in the TAAC],” Jackson said. “No one expected us to win or to win the tournament. We got to the final and fell short again. Now we’ve got another chance at it. There is a big change from this year and my freshman year for me. I really want to make history. We saw Mercy cutting down the nets and that hurts us. It could have been us. We saw how happy they were cutting down those nets. We knew we could come back and that we had another year, but that we’d have to work hard.”
   Jackson had been cold the night before and Newell, knowing this was his third TAAC championship game appearance in four years, wanted to get him involved early. On the game’s second possession, Springer sprung a pass into the corner where Jackson nailed an 18-footer.
   Centenary had a smaller, quicker team and needed to control the rebounding to have any chance.
   After a miss by Vandenlangenburg, Myers grabbed the rebound as the Trojans started to run. Springer penetrated and kicked the ball out to Jackson in the corner. Before Jackson even let the shot go, Springer held up a No. 1 as he turned and sprinted the other direction. Jackson nailed it for a 6-2 lead.
   Centenary stayed close, tying the game at 6-6 on a basket by Sewell and 12-12 after Vandenlangenburg bounced in an 18-footer with 12:59 left to play. Centenary held a 10-3 advantage in rebounds but the Gents failed to take the lead when Vandenlangenburg missed. McCurdy leaped high in the air for the rebound and the Trojans wasted no time getting the ball up court. Springer passed to Jackson, who hit an 18-footer on the baseline for a 14-12 lead.
  Centenary had five offensive rebounds before UALR got its first. Clarke got one and was fouled, then got another, blocking out Thomas to score for a 16-12 lead. Two free throws by Thomas cut the lead to two before UALR scored 15 of the next 21 points. Myers had a three-point play, then scored on a dunk after posting up Sewell. He caught the pass, spun right and dunked the ball with his right hand for a 21-14 lead.
   Springer then took a charge on Vandenlangenburg, his third foul of the game. The Gents got as close as 21-16 before the run continued. Worthy, who had just missed on a air ball, hit an 18-footer.
   “Worthy tries it again, this time Kenny gets it down,” Morgan called.
   A steal by Springer led to a pull-up jumper by Myers, then Jackson struck again.
   “There’s Jackson wide open. Bingo!” Morgan called.
   Clarke scored on the inside and Worthy banked in a 12-footer for a31-20 lead. Springer, who was nearing 10 assists in the half, then scored back-to-back baskets for a 36-24 lead with two minutes to play. After another Centenary miss, UALR broke up court doing a perfect three-man weave.
   “Fast break. Springer, Worthy, Clarke, basket,” Morgan called. “And the folks at the Statehouse enjoy it.”
   Clarke scored again as UALR took a 41-25 lead into halftime. Outside UALR’s locker room, Chancellor James Young pulled Newell aside.
   “I’ve taken you this far. The rest is up to you,” Young said.
   Just to be safe, Newell didn’t start Clarke in the second half. It didn’t matter. McCurdy banked in a 10-footer, Jackson hit a corner jump shot and Myers hit two free throws for an early 47-27 lead. With the score 47-31 and Centenary on a fast break, Jackson swooped in to steal the ball from Vandenlangenburg.
   “A steal from Myron Jackson from behind. Here’s Myers. Slam dunk!” Morgan shouted. “And the Trojans open up a 49-31 lead with 17:05 left to play and this crowd loves it at the Statehouse.”
   Vandenlangenburg picked up his fourth foul with 15:41 to play but had to stay in the game.
   “The Gents are in trouble,” Morgan observed.
   He was right. Worthy scored on a finger roll for a 53-37 score and Newell screamed from the sideline.
   “Hey! D it up. Let’s go,” he shouted.
   But Centenary continued to play within striking distance. A three-point play by Randall Davis made it 53-40 with 14 minutes to play. Inside of 11 minutes, Centenary finally had its chance to cut the lead to 11 points. Vandenlangenburg raced up court on a 2-on-1 with Davis. He passed to Davis just as Springer slipped in and took the charge. Canterberry couldn’t believe it, especially after the ball went in the basket.”
   “Paul Springer got back there and makes a great defensive play,” Morgan said.
   “I don’t think Tommy Canterberry would agree with that call,” Tucker said.
   Then at the other end, Myers scored for a 59-44 lead.
   Again, Centenary cut the lead to 13 and had a chance to make it 11. This time, Thomas made a move to the basket and Jackson slipped in. The official was so close that head to step over Jackson and Thomas, but he didn’t make a call.
   Myers traveled and Centenary got another opportunity. Vandenlangenburg missed back-to-back shots before Worthy finally grabbed the rebound. Worthy then scored on a putback to push the lead back to 15. Another putback by Worthy made it 63-46.
   “Kenny Worthy with another fine ball game off the bench,” Morgan called.
   Centenary was still as close as 65-52 with 5:47 to play when the Trojans put the game out of reach. Springer hit back-to-back jump shots and Jackson scored on a layup after a pass from Worthy. Myers’ running back shot made it 76-56.
   And after Jackson blew past two Centenary players to put back a free-throw miss for a 79-58 lead, the celebration was on.
   “There’s Jackson on the follow,” Morgan called.
   “Max, it’s all over,” Tucker responded.
   “Trojans right now very close to making history,” Morgan said.
   A standing ovation took place over the final two minutes as Newell took out the five on the court and inserted Kidd, Campbell, Severn, Chase and Powell.
   Bumper stickers, most likely coming from within the athletic department also started to appear everywhere: “UALR Trojans: Arkansas’ NCAA team.”
   The game concluded with a bang after Kidd grabbed a missed shot and flung the ball down the court to Campbell, who dunked the ball with four seconds remaining for an 85-63 lead.
   “Slam Dunk Keith Campbell. And that’s that. Look at Mike Newell. He deserves it,” Morgan said. “Mike Newell has taken this UALR Trojan team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.”
   As Newell walked around the court in the pandemonium that followed, he was tapped on the shoulder. It was Young. They embraced for several seconds with Newell lifting Young off the floor. Newell also received a hug from Gov. Clinton, who had stayed until the end.
   “It was unbelievable. Gov. Clinton and other son the front row. The whole state of Arkansas -- Razorback territory -- rooting for us. All you wanted to do was put on a good show,” Springer said.
UALR won despite getting outrebounded 46-39.
Clarke is named MVP.
   “It was like a dream come true. Coach Newell, he proved all the critics wrong,” Clarke said.
   Clarke had 18 points, 7 rebounds and was named the TAAC Tournament’s most valuable player. He was presented with the just-cut-down nets as a necklace as he received his unique all-clock trophy.
   “I think I gave it to my mother,” Clarke recalls.
   It was fitting for Myers, Clark and Worthy, teammates since junior high school.
   “In high school, we didn’t get the big one. In junior college, we didn’t get the big one,” Clarke said.
   Myers had 17 points, 8 rebounds and was named to the all-tournament team
   "Coach Newell said that we’re going to have a top-notch program. He said come to work and make some sacrifices and dedicate ourselves to basketball and the books. We’ve been doing that in the past. I’m just happy that it happened to us,” Myers said. “We’re number one in the Trans America conference and it feels great because this is something I’ve worked for.”
   Jackson had 17 points. He didn’t win any wards but was satisfied after finally winning the TAAC tournament on his third try.
   “I always believed in UALR,” Jackson said. “I knew last night [vs. Mercer] I was cold and that I was really going to have to concentrate tonight because this was a big game for us. I can look back at a time when we didn’t have this many people. Right now, it’s a packed house and we didn’t let the people down. We won the tournament.”
   Springer had 14 assists while Worthy had nine.
UALR-Centenary highlights

   “I tell you what. After Houston Baptist down there, until that final buzzer goes off, you can’t take anything for granted,” Newell told Tucker in the postgame. “We have so many weapons that we can hurt you with inside or outside. We got some breaks too. We’re going to celebrate tonight. We’re going to the NCAA now.”
   In the Arkansas Democrat, Hall wrote: “Fame, glory and big-time basketball finally took an address in Little Rock Saturday night -- 33rd and University.
   “For the 10th consecutive time, the state of Arkansas will have a representative in the NCAA Tournament. The honor, for the first time, doesn’t go to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. All the bragging rights of the season rightfully belong to second-year coach Mike Newell and UALR, a team that has been Division I only since 1980.”
   But back in the locker room, Newell was back to being himself.
   “Guys, see what happens when you are mentally tough, when you are ready to play. Now, the party has just started. We’re going to the NCAA and we’re not going there to lose,” Newell told the team. “You made history. You know what’s really ironic? You know what else we’ve got a chance to do? Hey, when we win that first game in the NCAA that breaks that all-time winning streak also. We’re right back tied again at nine.”
   Ten would have to come in the form of a miraculous upset.