A look back: 1986 UALR Trojans sunk to the lowest of lows with a 4-9 start to season

Copyright 2006 Maddie’s Daddy Productions
Chapter VII: Troubles
   Over the past two seasons, UALR had built a seven-game winning streak at Statehouse Convention Center. Luck was about to run out as Southeastern Louisiana visited on December 18.
2011 marks the 25th
anniversary of UALR's
upset of Notre Dame in
the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
Coach Mike Newell is being
inducted into the UALR
Athletics Hall of Fame on
January 29. BTH takes a look
back at 1986 with Jeffrey
Slatton's book, written in 2006.
   The SLU Lions couldn’t have been much hotter in the first half, making 18 of 21 field goals in taking a 43-31 lead. UALR kept it close in the second half, but lost 69-62 before a crowd of 1,560.
   Myers had 24 points and Smith added 11. Jackson made just 3 of 14 field goals and finished with 6. UALR had lost back-to-back games and the optimism that was present after the 3-1 start was quickly turning sour.
  Up next was a December 21 home game against Sam Houston State, which was Newell’s Alma Mater and at one time figured to be a showcase game for the program. News was quickly getting worse. Clarke, who didn’t start the SLU game, was out for sure with a sprained ankle suffered in practice. Smith, who had started four of the first six games, was considered “available” but had a stress fracture, which he also injured in practice.
   The good news was that Covington was now eligible and a viable option to replace Smith in the lineup. The other options were to move Myers to the low post and start Worthy or Powell.
   Point guard was also becoming a bigger problem. Chase started the first five games, and already had both six- and seven-assist games. But Campbell started the Marshall game and had 1 assist and 4 turnovers in 10 minutes. Springer and Severn, who had played all of three minutes, were the other options.
   Sam Houston State, which entered the game with an 8-1 record, exploited UALR’s guard problem. The Trojans had four turnovers in the final 36 seconds and lost 61-56 to drop to 3-4.
   UALR missed both a chance to tie and take the lead with turnovers in the final minute. Doug De Vore and Bruce Hodges each hit free throws to put the game out of reach. Covington started and contributed 15 points. Myers made just 4 of 14 field goals, but he did have 12 rebounds.
  Frustration was starting to mount.
   “We just weren’t playing as a team. People were upset, fighting and arguing,” Springer said.
UALR was back on the road December 23, traveling to the Providence Civic Center to play the Providence Friars, who were coached by Rick Pitino and featured a slick guard we know as Billy Donovan, who at this point was going by “Bill” Donovan.
   Clarke didn’t play, while Jackson played just 15 minutes. Myers played 30 minutes but was sick, coming off the court at one point and vomiting into a towel.
   The game was never close. UALR trailed 50-39 at halftime and lost 104-80. The Trojans shot a season-low field goal percentage of 30.7, making 23 of 75 shots. It also turned into a foul-fest with the teams combining to shoot 99 free throws. Providence was 33 of 48 while UALR was 34 of 51.
   Myers had 20 points while Kidd had 18, making an almost ridiculous 2 of 19 field goals and 14 of 22 free throws. McCurdy had his first big game, scoring 15 points in 18 minutes.
   “I don’t care about winning 20 games,” Newell said. “I would like for us to win 20 games, but if we don’t , I won’t be disappointed as long as we win the last three games.”
   The Trans-America Athletic Conference postseason tournament was a long way away. The schedule had taken its toll. Injuries and chemistry issues continued to plague the Trojans.
   “I believe in playing a tough no conference schedule to prepare us for the conference schedule and the conference tournament,” Newell said. “This is what I tell the team and they agree. We all hate to lose, but we don’t let it get us down. We always hold our heads up high.”
   Maybe too high. Newell wanted to increase the intensity. He practiced them even harder in the coming weeks.
   “We had some phenomenally hard practices for a while. During Christmas break, we went two-a-days with about four hours for each practice. I mean, it was extremely intense during that time, Dittman said. “I think the biggest thing that Mike did during that time was that he taught them mental toughness. We were a little lackadaisical. We would give in at times and allow people to do things to us. And we weren’t following scouting reports.”
   It worked. At least for a night.
   On December 28, UALR received 50 points from its reserves and rolled to an 87-67 victory over Texas-San Antonio before a dreadful crowd of 821 at Statehouse Convention Center. Covington, playing with still sore knees, led the Trojans with 24 points. Powell, who hadn’t done much to this point, scored 12 points.
Springer came off the bench to get eight assists and four steals in 24 minutes. Clarke returned to the lineup and had 8 points and 12 rebounds while Jackson had 18 points.
   “One thing I’m going to start, and this still might change, is that I don’t think we will have five consistent starters for the rest of the year,” Newell said. “It’s going to be whoever can put out that extra effort that’s going to be the guy that’s called upon to start and end games for us.”
   Even on this positive night, things weren’t all positive. Myers was ejected for a flagrant foul against Texas-San Antonio’s Tyrone Thigpen with 18:21 remaining in the second half.
   He didn’t start as UALR hosted Northwestern State on December 30. He wasn’t effective when he did play, scoring 8 points on 3 of 11 field goals. He also had 8 turnovers and fouled out.
UALR wasn’t much better, losing 68-61 to drop to 4-6 on the season. To make matters worse, only 300 showed up to watch, a crowd that would have easily fit inside Trojan Fieldhouse. On just about every level, this Trojan team was headed in the wrong direction.
   Jackson had 17 points but Northwestern State shot 54 percent from the field and the Trojans never got closer than seven points in the second half.
   “I decided on the way back from Northwester that I would pick eight players and stick with them for eight games. We’ll either win or know where we have to recruit,” Newell said.
   The eight-game stretch started at Norman, Oklahoma, for a Newell homecoming in the midst of the NCAA Division I football national championship euphoria. A familiar foe awaited the Trojans.
   Against Southeastern Louisiana, UALR took a seven-point lead at halftime before falling behind quickly in the second half. SLU led by four points, but UALR went on a 13-6 run to take a five-point lead.
   With the game tied 59-59, Myers was fouled as he hit a five-foot bank shot. His free throw gave the Trojans a 64-59 cushion and it looked like UALR was about to start digging out of its season hole.
   But Southeastern Louisiana’s Robert Cousin scored on the inside to cut the lead to 64-61. Then after a UALR turnover, Eric Fortenberry scored on a layup as Powell fouled him with 1:40 remaining. His free throw tied the game 64-64.
   Southeastern Louisiana held the ball, running the shot clock down before a jump shot by Fortenberry was good with five seconds remaining as UALR lost 66-64 and dropped to 4-7.
   “We want to win so bad that we’re making mistakes when we don’t need to,” Jackson said. “We gave ourselves a shot at winning tonight, but we made a lot of mistakes along the way. We’re just concentrating too hard. I think all this tough competition, it will help us in the conference.”
   But it wasn’t helping. The Trojans went scoreless in the final 2:42 of the game.
   “I’m sick and tired of listening to the other teams celebrating,” Myers said. “I wish I knew what was wrong with us. We just can’t seem to concentrate. We have a tendency to relax and not keep our tempo level up. We just didn’t have the same intensity that we did in the first half. We had a five-point lead and I thought we were going to win. But we just let it get away from us.”
   Newell kept his word, playing only eight players. Starting were Jackson, Powell, Myers, Covington and Campbell with Chase, Kidd and McCurdy coming off the bench. Despite playing well in recent games, Springer didn’t see any court time.
   “We’ve gone through nine games trying different guys,” Newell said. “I was encouraged. Now we have to come back tomorrow and play and get ready for conference.”
UALR still had to play in the consolation game against Austin Peay and lost 76-67. After the UALR cheerleaders performed at halftime, two stayed on the court for an impromptu game of one-on-one. The way the season was going, they should have tried out. Newell might have put them in his top eight.
   The Governors raced to a 58-46 lead midway through the second half, holding a 10-point advantage with 7:03 to play. A furious 13-2 run by UALR gave the Trojans a 67-66 lead with 2:52 to play after Jackson hit a jump shot from the left corner.
   Austin Peay didn’t flinch. Pat Day got open and hit a 12-foot jump shot to put the Governors up for good at 68-67. The Trojans didn’t score again. Jackson’s 21 points led UALR. Myers had 16, but Austin Peay shot 61.1 percent to UALR’s 37.7 percent.
   Newell’s team finished its pre-conference schedule 4-8 and was still searching. Searching for its identity, searching for its heart. But more than anything, they were searching for somebody to handle the basketball.
   “If one of our two guards doesn’t come around soon, it is going to be a long season,” Newell said. “When you get close, your point guard has to take charge, make something happen. What ours are making happen loses games. That’s just killing us. We’ve got to develop one.”
   The start of the TAAC schedule seemed to bring promise of better times for UALR. The Trojans were the preseason pick to win and they opened with Hardin-Simmons on January 6. Hardin-Simmons could be a bear at Abilene, Texas, but in Little Rock this was a game UALR was expected to win. A crowd of 1,574 anticipated just that.
   UALR again took the second-half lead at 54-48 with 7:11 to play before the Cowboys rallied to take their first lead since the opening basket with 3:28 to play. After a brief tie, free throws by Edwin Haynes and Ricky Henry and a tip-in by Henry put the game out of reach in a 61-56 loss.
   “Until we start hitting the shots that we practice every day and until we eliminate the mental mistakes, we can’t expect to win,” Newell said. “We start the second half with four turnovers. Three times we throw it away and one time they stole it. The guys are going to make mistakes, but mental mistakes are killing us right now.”
   Jackson led UALR with 22 points. Covington had 10 points and Myers 8. Clarke had 13 rebounds, but scored only 6 points.
   Worthy didn’t play. Powell played 8 minutes while Campbell played just 1.
   “The Lord doesn’t just say, ‘You’re UALR, and you’re playing at home, so you’re going to win,’” Newell said. “We keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. If we hadn’t worked on the same mistakes we keep making, it wouldn’t bother me. But we work on this every day, the same things every day. And we still make the same mistakes.”
   UALR dropped to 4-9 on the season and as they walked off the court, Newell trailed behind Myers.
   “I can still see it today. He was literally crying. He was ranting and raving, saying this has got to stop,” Newell said. “This losing has got