UALR’s first-round opponent at the TAAC postseason tournament was the same team it wrapped up the regular season with -- Georgia State.
Statehouse Convention Center wasn’t available, meaning UALR had to find another place to play. With Barton Coliseum, Central Arkansas’ Farris Center in Conway and the Pine Bluff Convention Center also booked up, UALR turned to the on-campus Trojan Fieldhouse for its opener.
|Pete Myers at|
Reinhardt was just trying to get his team’s season over with. And by hanging around Little Rock a couple of extra days, he could. For UALR, the pressure to advance to their first NCAA Tournament was mounting.
“There’s real pressure here because if we don’t win the tournament we’re not going anywhere in postseason play. But I think that will change in our conference, especially here,” Newell said. “What bothers me is that if he hadn’t had that Houston Baptist game taken away from us, we would have won 17 in a row and have the second-longest winning streak in the country.”
Trojan Fieldhouse could comfortably seat about a thousand people with its rickety bleachers. On March 2, 1986, 1,342 crammed their way in.
“It was wild,” Newell recalled. “If we could have played all our games there I don’t know if we would have ever lost a home game.”
UALR jumped out to a big lead and rolled to a 115-82 victory in a game that looked more like a slam dunk contest than an conference tournament game.
|Michael Clarke put on a show|
at Trojan Fieldhouse.
“I was just having fun. I didn’t really even know what my stats were,” Clarke said.
Jackson finished with 20, Smith 17, Springer 16 and Myers 13. Springer added 10 assists while Smith had 12 rebounds.
It was Smith, who had missed almost two months with a stress fracture that kept the crowd involved. They chanted “Pizza, Pizza” throughout the final 10 minutes, hoping UALR would top the 100-point plateau to kick in a promotion that would provide free pizza for all in attendance.
With the score 99-67, Smith slammed home an alley-oop from Worthy with 3:39 to play, giving UALR 101 points and kicking in the promotion.
“I had a pretty good night,” said Smith, who was injured Dec. 19 in practice and spent two weeks in a cast. “That’s the most I’ve played since I hurt my foot. It felt good to have a good game. I got a few dunks and I had some rebounds. That made me feel good.”
One fan wearing a blue Members Only jacket was so excited, he jumped four or five times in the air and ended up nearly 10 feet on the court before he was ushered back to his seat.
“They were out of control,” Morgan said. “It was just going crazy and it was so much fun.”
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“We’ll be packed wall-to-wall with people,” Newell predicted. “That’s what we’ve been shooting for. We’ve won our conference regular season and we’ve won 20 ball games. Winning 20 ball games is tough to do. But we have one big goal to go, and that is still two games away.”
UALR-Georgia Southern highlights
UALR remained an overwhelming favorite going into the TAAC final four, probably more so after Hardin-Simmons and Houston Baptist, the two teams that had given the Trojans the most trouble, lost in the first round.
The semifinals were to take place on a Friday nigh at Statehouse Convention Center. UALR (20-10) was scheduled to play the first game against Mercer (15-13) at 7:05 p.m. The nightcap at 9:30 p.m. featured Samford (17-12) against Centenary (12-16).
Newell downplayed the Trojans’ chances.
“With eight or nine minutes to go against Mercer there was only a one or two-point difference or we were even. With about that much time left, Centenary was ahead of us. And against Samford, we were only about one or two points ahead,” Newell said. “A foul here and a bad pass there could have made the difference in the ball game.
Mercer Coach Bill Bibb, whose team eliminated the Trojans the previous year, wasn’t convinced.
“Mike has a short memory. I noticed that right off,” he said. “When we played UALR at Pine Bluff, it was a two-point ball game at the half., but with six or seven minutes to go, I would have stopped the ball game if he would have let me. We were down 25.”
Newell was all about his mind games.
“I’d now say Mercer is the favorite to win the whole thing because we’re playing them,” he said. “Mercer has got some player in Chris Moore, a 6-9 junior. He reminds me a lot of Wayman Tisdale. When he catches the ball, he can shoot it. And, you know, we had a one-pint game against Mercer a couple of weeks ago.”
Mercer came into the game after upsetting Hardin-Simmons on the road 70-61.
“We’ve gone with just 10 people all year,” Bibb said. “Some games we’ve played well, some not so well. We’ve been up and down. We have only one senior on our club, so you can expect that. I just hope we can make it a contest tomorrow night. It will take a very good effort to beat them. It will take an awful good job for anyone to beat them.”
To advance to the championship, UALR would have to become one of only two teams in seven season to win the TAAC regular season championship and postseason tournament. Tickets cost $7.50 for box seats and $6 for reserved seats.
No matter what he was saying publicly, Newell still had the swagger.
“Barring sickness or injury we’ll be pretty tough to beat,” he said. “We can hurt you in so many ways. We can be very difficult to defend against, to play against. We always get maximum effort in hustle and desire from our players.”
About the only thing more ironic than playing Mercer in the semifinals would have been playing the Bears in the championship game. It was Mercer that ended UALR’s dream season the previous year.
“I made our guys stand out there and watch Mercer cut those nets down. I made them stay out there. Most of them didn’t want to. Still today, my stomach churns when I think about that,” Newell said. “That was our theme the whole summer and fall. we knew eventually we were going to get things corrected and be ready to compete for this championship.”
|Myron Jackson plays defense|
against Mercer at Statehouse.
Mercer scored the game’s first six points before Clarke posted up Moore, took a pass from Springer and spun to the basket for a short bank shot over Tracy Vaughn. A basket by Smith gave UALR its first lead at 14-12 with 9:01 to play. At the other end, Springer stole the ball in the paint and, after nearly losing it, started a fast break. He passed to Clarke, who passed to Jackson. His shot missed but Clarke was there for the rebound and put it back for a 16-12 lead.
UALR scored the final points of the half when Springer stole the ball and threw it up court to Jackson. Mercer’s Elston Harris got back to defend. Jackson dribbled twice, put the ball through his legs, faked a shot and dropped it over the top to Worthy. Mercer’s Everette Callaway already had two fouls and didn’t want to pick up a third. He let worthy Smith for an uncontested layup and a 28-18 halftime lead.
UALR got it rolling early in the second half, where Myers scored 16 of his game-high 22 points and beat Mercer 81-66 and advanced to the championship game against Centenary.
“We shut down Chris Moore to 15 points. That sounds like a lot, but really he only had 11 shots,” Newell said. “We played very, very well.”
The victory came on the same night the seasons for Arkansas-Fayetteville and Arkansas State came to an end. Arkansas lost 67-51 to Texas A&M while Arkansas State lost 68-57 to McNeese State.
That left the Trojans to carry the banner for the state.
“I don’t think there is any added pressure on us because we’re the only Arkansas team left,” Myers said. “Myself, Michael, Myron and Kenny -- all the seniors -- push for UALR, Arkansas and Arkansas State as well. When we wear these uniforms, we represent Arkansas. We hope we can represent Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. I think getting to the NCAA Tournament is motivation enough for us and not just being the only Arkansas team with a chance. That’s always been our goal.”