The drive through western Arkansas to Conway is an impressive one. It is called the Natural State for a reason. Interstate 40 runs up and down the rolling hills of the Ozarks and is surrounded by the natural beauty of thousands of trees that line the highway. It's especially impressive in the fall when the leaves are changing. Along with the impressive natural features, the Arkansas Nuclear One power plant sits on Lake Dardanelle near the highway. As you drive by, you can see the man-made ventilation tower sending steam into the air.
When my fiancee and I arrive in Conway, we make our way to the campus of the University of Central Arkansas and find a parking space near the Farris Center where the basketball games are held. The first thing we notice about the place is that it sits directly across from UCA's football stadium. The reason I point this out is that UCA's football field has a unique color pattern. The Bears' colors are purple and gray, and fittingly, the football field is purple and gray in a striped pattern, with the two colors alternating every five yards. If you thought the field at Boise State was crazy, this one is even crazier.
After snapping a few photos of the field, we make our way into the small arena, grab our tickets and find our seats. My fiancee's cousin, Andrew, a student at UCA, joins us shortly after we arrive. He reminds us that this is the alma mater of Scottie Pippen, which had completely slipped my mind. This was doubly embarrassing because there were large banners hanging on the opposite end of the arena commemorating Pippen's NBA achievements. By large, I mean that one stretched the entire length of the baseline on the opposite side of the court from our seats.
The coaching matchup for this game was a rather interesting one. On the visiting side for the Lamar Cardinals was Pat Knight, the son of legendary coach Bob Knight. On the home side for the Bears was Corliss Williamson, who was a basketball legend in Arkansas not only for his high school dominance at nearby Russellville but also for leading the Arkansas Razorbacks to the 1994 national championship under Nolan Richardson.
Just before the introduction of the UCA players, the customary intro video is played on the arena's video screen. The video includes the team's motto: "Die Early. Live Later." This motto took me aback because it seemed a bit macabre and I couldn't figure out its meaning. We asked Andrew, and he had no idea what it meant. I thought about it for a few moments but couldn't come up with my own interpretation of the phrase.
With the game about to start, I tucked the interesting motto in the back of my mind and focused on the ensuing action. As the game started, it was clear from the play of UCA that Williamson was a true Richardson disciple. The Bears started playing the "40 minutes of hell" style that Richardson made famous at Arkansas. The Bears implemented a full-court press from the get-go and played high pressure man-to-man defense in the half court. They also picked up the pace on offense, turning the game in to an almost up-and-down sprint.
Although UCA opened up an early 6-2 lead, Lamar didn't seem to mind the quick pace, as it took advantage of the holes left by UCA's press to quickly tie the score at 6. UCA answered with a quick 5-0 run capped off by a monstrous dunk by senior guard Mark Rutledge, putting the score at 11-6 at the first media timeout.
After the timeout, the Bears pushed the lead to eight, but senior Lamar guard Brandon Davis quickly helped close the deficit down to one with a #superhoop, jumper and assist on three straight possessions going into the under-12 timeout.
After that timeout, the two teams battled back and forth, with the lead never getting larger than four points for either side for the rest of the half as neither team was able to mount a significant run due to the slowing pace and poor shooting by both sides. As the first half wound down, I noted two interesting occurrences, one non-game related and one game related. The first happened during the under-4 timeout. On the video board, a video of the basketball team was played that led the crowd in an "I believe that we will win!" chant. It brought a smile to my face as it was perfect for #TMM8 even though I was probably the only person in the building that knew it. The second interesting event happened at the end of the half on UCA's final possession. With 13 seconds left and Lamar leading 30-29, UCA was inbounding under its own basket after a timeout. Lamar decided to press in hopes of disrupting the Bears' plan for the final play. However, UCA was able to quickly get the ball behind the press and go on a 3-on-1 break. The ball carrier brought the ball down the right side of the court closely guarded, but instead of hitting the wide open man in the middle of the court streaking to the basket for an essentially guaranteed two points, he gets greedy and throws it cross court to the open 3-point shooter, who subsequently misses the shot. Although UCA trailed by only one point going in to the half, the momentum gained from getting the easy 2 and grabbing the lead could have been significant.
The halftime festivities consisted of lots of dancing. First, the UCA dance squad took the floor for an impressive dance routine. Although I'm no dance expert (I leave that to my sisters), it seemed as if there were a lot of different challenging elements to the routine that the squad pulled off without a hitch. However, it would soon be outdone by a group of about 70 kids from the West Magnet Dance Team from West Magnet Elementary in Batesville, Ark., a visual and performing arts magnet school. The kids, both boys and girls, looked to be between the grades of third and sixth. After taking the floor, they broke out in to two different dance routines that took up nearly seven minutes of halftime. With music blaring in the background, they danced all over the court with impressive coordination for a group of 70 kids. I managed to get the second half of the performance on video.
(Sorry for the people walking up the aisle and the shakiness. My arms were getting tired. Oh, and sorry for the great shot of my finger at the end.)
After the teams retook the floor and got in a short warmup, the second half was ready to begin. The beginning of the second half picked right up where the first half left off, as the two teams found themselves in a nip-and-tuck battle. Lamar made early attempts to build its lead and pull away, but UCA always seemed to have the answer to keep it close. UCA was finally able to grab its first lead of the half at the 15:40 mark on a 3-pointer by junior guard Robert Crawford. That lead would be short lived as the Cardinals grabbed the lead back on an Anthony Miles layup. Two minutes later, Lamar went on a quick 7-0 run to open the lead up to eight and force a UCA timeout.
The timeout managed to slow Lamar, but only a little. At around nine minutes, a Jarvis Garner jumper for UCA closed the deficit to seven points and appeared to give the Bears a bit of momentum. That was quickly squashed as Mike James buried a #superhoop to put the Cardinals up 10. Over the next couple of minutes, UCA tried to mount a run as it knocked down a few baskets, but each time Lamar would answer and the Bears were never able to trim the deficit below eight.
After the under-8 timeout with the score sitting at 65-56 in Lamar's favor, the Bears suddenly went cold. Lamar quickly put together a 6-1 run to push the lead to 15 as it started to dominate the game athletically on both ends of the floor. There was no quit in the Bears as they continued to fight to pull the game back within striking distance for a final charge, but they just couldn't seem to get the stops they needed to string together a few baskets and get the deficit under double digits. There was also no quit in the West Magnet Dance Team in its support of the Bears as it broke into a "DE-FENSE" chant on the final possession of the game while Lamar was dribbling out the clock on its way to a 92-78 victory.
What looked to be a barn burner quickly turned into a one-sided affair, as sometimes happens in our game, but it was fun nonetheless. As we made our way out of the arena and headed to pick up Andrew's girlfriend for an after-game dinner, I again thought about the UCA motto -- "Die Early. Live Later." I still couldn't draw any meaning out of the odd motto no matter how hard I thought about it. I guess the motto isn't for me to understand, but that's fine. As long as it has meaning to the coaches and players of the UCA Bears, that's all that matters.
LAMAR 92, at CENTRAL ARKANSAS 78 01/21/2012
LAMAR 12-7 (3-2) -- A. Miles 9-15 4-7 22; C. Harper 9-16 4-5 22; D. Lamb 4-5 1-1 9; M. James 4-10 7-8 16; B. Davis 5-8 0-0 12; S. Brown 3-4 3-6 9; V. Nelson 0-0 0-0 0; O. Ebomwonyi 1-1 0-0 2; D. Minor 0-1 0-0 0; N. Acosta 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 35-60 19-27 92. CENTRAL ARKANSAS 7-10 (2-3) -- M. Rutledge 4-12 2-4 10; L. Miles 6-14 4-10 16; R. Crawford 7-11 0-0 18; D. Clayborn 3-7 1-2 8; A. Borden 4-6 0-1 8; J. Garner 4-9 0-0 8; J. Harks 1-5 0-0 2; C. Bremner 2-4 0-0 5; R. Williams 0-3 0-0 0; T. Tidwell 1-1 1-2 3; O. Wells 0-0 0-0 0; C. Henson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 32-73 8-19 78.
Three-point goals: LAM 3-10 (A. Miles 0-3; E. Davis 2-5; M. James 1-2), UCA 6-16 (R. Crawford 4-7; D. Clayborn 1-3; M. Rutledge 0-1; C. Bremner 1-3; J. Garner 0-2); Rebounds: LAM 36 (C. Harper 14), UCA 36 (J. Garner 8); Assists: LAM 20 (A. Miles 4), UCA 11 (D. Clayborn 3); Total Fouls -- LAM 18, UCA 20; Fouled Out: LAM-None; UCA-A. Borden.