3/12/2012 at 9:15pm
Image by Nelson Chenault
UALR’s women’s basketball team reacts to news of its first-round opponent, the Delaware Blue Hens, in the NCAA Tournament, which opens Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Jack Stephens Center.
UALR’s women, surprising winners last week in Hot Springs in the Sun Belt Conference championship game to earn a spot in the NCAA Women’s Tourament, drew a 14th seed Monday and a pairing against No. 3-seeded Delaware. The good news is that UALR was already playing host to a subregional, whether the Trojans had made the field or not, and they’ll have the home-court advantage against the 30-1 Blue Hens on Sunday at 4:20 p.m. Joining UALR and Delaware in the subregional at the Jack Stephens Center are former Big 8/Big 12 rivals Kansas and Nebraska, who play in Sunday’s second game.
Chair back seats are $50 for all sessions; end zone seats are $40 for all sessions. For tickets call the UALR Ticket Office at (501) 565-UALR or visit UALRTrojans.com. The box office at the Jack Stephens Center also will be open from 10 am.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
UALR Coach Joe Foley’s brief words for Monday’s crowd at the Jack Stephens Center to watch the pairings annoucement including a thanks for the fans’ support and the hope “that each one of you will bring three or four others to the tournament.”
UALR, 20-12 overall will need every edge it can muster against a mid-major program with a high-major star in junior Elena Delle Donne, who leads the nation in scoring with a 27.5 per-game average. She also pulls down 10.5 rebounds per game, and she shoots better than 40 percent from 3-point range and nearly 90 percent on free throws. She score 40 or more points four times this season, including a high of 42, as Delaware romped to the Colonial Athletic Association regular season and tournament titles.
The 6-foot-5 Delle Donne was a two-time high school player of the year who signed with UConn but lasted less than a week at Storrs, Conn., before she quit and returned home to Delaware, reportedly burned out on basketball. She tried volleyball at the University of Delaware before the basketball fires reignited.
ESPN correctly forecast the matchup of UALR and Delaware before Monday’s announcement, but ESPN’s selection show went deep into the hour before UALR, and Little Rock as the host city of the subregional, showed up on the screen.
UALR players, coaches, fans and support staff gathered at Jack Stephens Center Monday afternoon to await the announcement. They watched a replay of the Sun Belt Tournament final and Taylor Ford’s breathtaking drive and short shot in the lane that gave the Trojans a 71-70 lead with 11 seconds left. Middle Tennessee, which to that point had not lost to a Sun Belt team this season, then got off two well-defended 3-pointers from either side of the free-throw lane before time ran out.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore Ford, whose shot is responsible for the Trojans making the field — UALR’s high RPI made it unlikely the Trojans would get a bid unless they had beaten Middle Tennessee — said the past six days have been a roller coast of emotions
"It’s been incredible and it’s been weird at the same time, because everywhere you go it’s like everybody is like, ‘Congratulations, congratulations.’ You’re just looking around like, ‘thank you, thank you,’" Ford said. "It’s just crazy. It’s been amazing, actually … When I was on the computer, and I was looking at the NCAA stuff about who won and other stuff and I could see my name. I was just like, ‘Geez.’ It was just a shot.
"When I was watching again on the screen [Monday], I was just wondering what was I thinking during that time. At first, when it was happening, I was kind of like scared. Where’s the ball going to go? Somebody needs to get open, get open. I through it to Marian [Kursh] and I got the ball back and I was like, ‘Shot. Two seconds.’"
The sea in the lane seemed to part for Ford to drive to the bucket as Middle Tennessee thought the ball might go back to Kursh or to freshman Taylor Gault, the team’s leading scorer. And there it was again, in front of several hundred fans again Monday, as exciting as it seemed last Tuesday in Hot Springs.
Moments later, the big screens on either end of the Stephens Center switched to ESPN’s women’s pairings coverage. And finally, nearly 40 minutes later, up popped “Little Rock” and the first pairing here, a 6-vs.-11 matchup between Nebraska (6) and Kansas (11). That told everyone that UALR was a 14th seed and would be playing a third seed. When Delaware was announced, the players and the fans cheered boisterously.
Other pairings announced on the replay boards in the arena brought various levels of reaction, most noticeably the pairing of Arkansas and Dayton in College Station, Texas, where Texas A&M could await the winner in the second round. A&M Coach Gary Blair previously coached the Razorbacks before taking over the Aggies and building a program that peaked with last year’s national championship. This year, A&M is a 3 seed.
Arkansas, as a 6 seed, could have been sent to Little Rock, but the selection committee decided to have just one Arkansas team at the Jack Stephens Center. Kansas should travel well, and Nebraska has a good program that reached the Big Ten tourney final. Plus, until Nebraska’s athletic programs moved last year into the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers and Jayhawks were rivals for nearly a century in athletic contests.
"We gotta come ready to play. Just bedause we’re at home, we have to stay focued and show that we’re good enough to be in this tournament and that we can go on past the first round," Ford said.
UALR’s tournament appearance is its third in a row under Foley, who took over a struggling outfit nine years ago after tremendous success at Division II (and formerly NAIA) Arkansas Tech. UALR won its first tournament game in its first try two years ago, shocking Georgia Tech in Norman, Okla., before falling to host Oklahoma in the second round. Last year, Wisconsin-Green Bay eliminated the Trojans in the first round at Wichita.
"The big key is, we’ve got our fans here," Foley said of the third trip to The Dance. "That’s huge at this time of year because all games are based on runs, and getting runs going and your fans play a huge part in picking you up when you let down little bit and need a run, they kind of help you get going. It’s kind of hard to let down when you’ve got a bunch of people in the stands."
UALR might have seen post-season play with the Women’s NIT, which the Trojans competed in four years ago, but Ford’s shot and the ensuing defense last Tuesday against Middle Tennessee assured another trip for Foley’s program to the tourney that matters.
"It’s just an awesome time to be getting to play in the NCAA. There’s many coaches and many teams that never have that opportunity," Foley said. "Thank goodness I’m old enough now and been around long enough, I cherish each one of them … I try to transfer that over to the kids, get them to realize how important it is, how much fun it is, to enjoy it. Don’t let these moments slip by because a lot of people never get to experience these moments. I’m tickled to death for our basketball team."