A look back: Last year's UALR-Middle Tennessee women's game at Sun Belt was one of the best ever

   So, it apparently didn't warrent any local coverage this morning. But the rematch of last season's game of the year is today as the UALR women host Middle Tennessee at 1 p.m. at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. It might have been the game of the year last season in women's college basketball. Most who were there seemed to think this was the best game they've ever watched.
That game was televised on ESPNU and no doubt watched by the NCAA Women's Basketball Committee. Less than a week later, UALR earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Women's Tournament.
   So, just to reminisce a little bit, albeit a little painfully, here's Jeffrey Slatton's story from last year's Sun Belt Tournament Championship in Hot Springs.


   HOT SPRINGS — Bank shot doesn’t have the same ring as teardrop. The heartbreak stings just the same for UALR.
   Middle Tennessee’s Alysha Clark hit a short bank shot with 1.8 seconds left as UALR’s women lost 70-68 in overtime in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament on Tuesday. 
   While it’s the first time UALR’s women’s team has experienced such a loss, UALR’s program has seen it before. On March 5, 1996, New Orleans’ Tyrone Garris hit a driving layup, known as the teardrop, over Derek Fisher as the UALR men lost 57-56 in the Sun Belt Tournament championship game. That UALR team ended up getting passed over for the NCAA Tournament.
   The UALR women, who had a 21-game winning streak snapped, will have to wait to see if they will have a similar fate.
   “It was a lot of fun to watch. It’s a little hard right now to take,” UALR Coach Joe Foley said.
   Clark, who scored 48 points and was named the tournament’s MVP, spun off the block and got a shot off over UALR junior forward Chastity Reed.
   “She knows how to use her body, and she’s really strong,” Reed said. “Even if you get a stop on her, she can move you out of the way and get the rebound again.”
   The shot gave Middle Tennessee a 70-68 lead.
   “I knew they weren’t going to call anything because it was the last seconds of the game and it was time for me to make a big shot,” Clark said. “That’s something we work on every day in practice.”
   UALR had one final opportunity and ran what Foley called the Christian Laettner play, named for the former Duke player.
   Senior forward Kim Sitzmann ran the baseline and threw a long one-handed pass into the frontcourt. Reed and junior guard Shanika Butler leapt for it with Clark. Reed tipped it as the clock started to run.
   Butler, who was 1 for 10 from three-point range on the season, grabbed the ball, spun and squared up just outside the three-point line. The ball left her hands with 0.3 seconds still showing on the clock.
   The ball hit off the backboard, failing to catch a piece of the rim as it fell no good.
   “Two great teams playing their hearts out and giving everything they have to the game of basketball,” Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell said. “Playing with passion, making shots, making plays, diving after loose balls. If you didn’t enjoy that women’s basketball game today, you better check your pulse because it was an absolute great, great game.”
   UALR (26-6) is now at the mercy of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Committee, which will select teams for the women’s NCAA Tournament next Monday.
   Middle Tennessee (25-5) won its third consecutive Sun Belt Conference championship. The Blue Raiders were ranked No. 25 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll released before game time, and likely would have made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.
   Both teams played four of their starters for all 45 minutes, with Clark playing the final 12:20 without picking up her fifth foul.
   “Clark wasn’t going to foul out,” Foley said.
   Reed, bottled up by Middle Tennessee’s Jackie Pickel and help defense from her Blue Raiders teammates, finished with 14 points, making 7 of 23 field-goal attempts. Reed was coming off a 41-point performance against New Orleans in the semifinals and was averaging 25.6 points per game.
   Reed’s teammates picked up the scoring slack. Butler had 18 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists and junior point guard Asriel Rolfe had 17 points, making 5 of 8 threepointers.
   Clark made 16 of 28 shots from the field and 16 of 18 free throws for her 48 points. Her teammates made only 7 of 27 field-goal attempts and 2 of 2 free throws. Clark also had 16 of Middle Tennessee’s 37 rebounds.
   UALR was also hurt by making only 6 of 13 free throws, including two on the front end of 1-and-1 opportunities.
   UALR had its chances to put Middle Tennessee away. The Trojans led by 10 points in the first half and had Middle Tennessee point guard Chelsea Lymon on the bench. But the Blue Raiders fought back, going exclusively to Clark. She scored the final seven points of the half to tie the score 32-32.
UALR took a 52-44 lead with 7:20 left when Reed scored as she was fouled by Clark, who stayed in the game despite picking up her fourth foul.
   And Middle Tennessee scored the next 13 points, taking a 57-52 lead with 3:09 left on two free throws by Clark. The biggest shot came from Brandi Brown, whose threepointer was her only made shot of the game.
   “That one we let Brown hit was a critical three,” Foley said. “We switched Chas down trying to get a stop and [Marian] Kursh didn’t get out on Brown. We weren’t going to leave Brown, but it was one of those mental mistakes.”
   The Trojans didn’t wilt, tying the game 59-59 after Rolfe hit a three-pointer and then scored on a driving layup with 1:31 left. Both teams faltered on their last opportunities of regulation, with Pickel missing a late three-pointer to allow the game to go into overtime.
   With the game tied 61-61 with 2:53 left in overtime, Butler missed a shot and Clark tipped the rebound up. Sitzmann and Clark were side by side as Sitzmann got up higher than Clark and ripped the ball away as she tumbled out of bounds.
   It looked like Clark had just fouled out of the game. Instead, the foul went against Sitzmann, and Clark made two free throws to start a 7-0 run by Middle Tennessee.
It included a three-pointer by Anne Marie Lanning and two free throws from Lymon.
   Again, UALR responded. Rolfe hit a three-pointer, and after Clark missed consecutive layups, Butler scored on a putback for a 68-66 score. UALR tied the game after Butler headed downcourt after a rebound and passed to sophomore forward Channon Haywood, who was fouled in transition. Haywood, a 50 percent free-throw shooter, hit both free throws with 29.4 seconds left to tie the game 68-68.
   Middle Tennessee held the ball until the 10-second mark before Lymon passed to Pickel, who slipped the ball inside the lane to Clark, guarded by Reed. Clark took one dribble and bounced a pass in the corner to Lanning. She passed to Lymon, who slipped the ball back inside to Clark with four seconds left.
   Clark took one dribble with the left hand and went up for the shot as she and Reed bumped. Reed didn’t get much elevation on her jump, and the ball left Clark’s hand with 2.7 seconds left. She laid it perfectly off the backboard and in to dash UALR’s hopes.