While the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears don’t have to worry yet about packing, UCA men’s coach Russ Pennell says he is taking along four suits for the Southland Conference tournament when the Bears leave Tuesday for Katy, Texas.
The UCA women, as the result of a double bye from a regular-season title, don’t play until Saturday afternoon’s semifinal.
The Bears learned they had gained the eighth and final spot in the men’s tournament late Saturday night after Southland officials re-evaluated a complicated tiebreaking process among five teams that were tied for the final spot.
UCA (8-23, 7-11) goes into the tournament having lost five games in a row. Fifth-seeded and preseason favorite Sam Houston State (19-12, 10-8) ) goes into Wednesday afternoon’s game having lost six of eight.
“I told the team, even though we didn’t win as many games as we would like, that we did what we needed to do to get to the tournament,” Pennell said at Monday’s Bearbacker luncheon. “We earned it. We accomplished what was our ultimate goal this year and that was to get to Katy.”
Pennell said the pressure to reach that goal had an effect on UCA closing the regular season with five straight defeats.
“The way things came down, I thought we put way too much pressure on ourselves to get to the tourney,” Pennell said. “I could see it in their faces Saturday night when I told them we were still playing. I could see the relief, that we had accomplished our goal.”
The Bears must win four games in four days to win the tourney and gain the SLC’s automatic bid into the NCAA tourney.
But the men’s bracket appears to be wide open. UCA defeated Sam Houston State, 67-65, in its conference opener on Dec. 31. If the Bears get past Sam Houston, they will play Houston Baptist, another team they have beaten, on Thursday.
“I am taking four suits,” Pennell said. “If we can win four more games, I told the guys we’re probably playing North Carolina or Kansas (projected No. 1 seeds) in the NCAA tournament.
“All the teams are even and 0-0 right now. I think the Southland tournament is gonna be crazy.”
After having a net-cutting ceremony Sunday afternoon at the Farris Center after securing the regular-season Southland Conference title with a victory over Northwestern State in Natchiotoches, La., on Saturday, the Sugar Bears (24-4, 16-2) now wait.
They will play either Northwestern State, New Orleans or Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in Saturday’s 1 p.m. semifinal. The championship is Sunday. The teams eligible for the tourney that we closest to UCA in the final regular-season standings (Stephen F. Austin, 23-6, and Lamar, 22-6) are on the opposite side of the bracket.
“We’ve kept our eyes on New Orleans because they are athletic and are a good team and have really come along,” said UCA assistant Greg Long, who was subbing for head coach Sandra Rushing. “We are familiar with Northwestern State and New Orleans and Corpus Christi are similar in style to us. But you can’t overlook anyone.”
One big concern is when the Sugar Bears play Saturday, they will be playing only their second game in two weeks and will have had a week off because of the double bye.
“We will try to make sure we don’t come out sluggish,” Long said. “We are going to do anything in our practices this week to make things as competitive as possible, to keep the fire in their eyes.”
By winning the regular-season title, the Sugar Bears have automatically clinched a berth in the WNIT if they don’t win the Southland tourney and gain the automatic NCAA bid. UCA, after winning the tournament, advanced to the NCAA last year, losing in the first round to Louisville at Louisville.
“But our players remember the NCAA tournament last year and how they were treated like queens and princesses,” Long said. “So they really want get back.”