McCollum’s Column: When a UCA assistant took centerstage and cried ‘Wait’

Some moonlight research by University of Central Arkansas men’s assistant Matt Scherbenske on a subdued four-hour bus ride Saturday night resulted in the “La La Land” development that suddenly put the Bears qualifying for the Southland Conference basketball tournament.

 

After a loss to Northwestern State , the Bears left Natchiotoches , La. in early evening Saturday, thinking their season was over and the door had been slammed shut on qualifying for the conference tournament at Katy, Texas.

It was a complicated situation.

Five teams (UCA, Nicholls, Northwestern State, Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian) tied for the eighth and final tournamen spot. Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA Division I transition but their regular-season records still count in the tiebreaking procedure.

The SLC office sent out a detailed release to the schools and the media Friday outlining all the scenarios and tiebreaking procedures for ties involving three or more teams. One of the first items on tiebreaking checklist was the records of deadlocked teams against each other. If that didn’t get the situation down to one team, then the remaining tied teams are compared with the records against all the SLC teams they played twice in descending order until one team has an advantage. Interestingly, if Incarnate Word had been eligible for the tournament, it would have received the eighth seed because it had a 5-2 record against the five tied teams.

But with Incarnate Word and Abilene ineligible and Northwestern State eliminated with a 3-3 mark , UCA and Nicholls were tied with 4-3 records against the teams in the logjam. But the Southland initially determined that the tie could not be broken with that step (involving opponents the Bears and the Colonels had played twice) but Nicholls had the tiebreaker over UCA in a subsequent step.

However, when SLC officials sent out the tiebreaking scenarios Friday, they overlooked that UCA and Northwestern State still had a regular-season game left. And it would be the second time UCA and Northwestern State had played, the key piece of the puzzle overlooked by the initial analysis.

Analyzing all the data on smart phone on the bus ride home, Scherbenske spotted the oversight — that the two games UCA and Nicholls had played against Northwestern State had been overlooked. In that tiebreaker, which preceded the one that seemed to give Nicholls the tourney berth, UCA was 1-1 against Northwestern State while Nicholls was 0-2, giving the edge to UCA.

Scherbenske got up from his seat on the bus late Saturday night and showed his analysis to Steve East, UCA sports information director, and asked him if he reached the same conclusion.

East then showed the findings to coach Russ Pennell, who then called Athletic Director Brad Teague but passed up telling the team about the new development without official confirmation. “Check this out; I think we are in the tourney,” Pennell asked Teague.

With the UCA team still on the road back to Conway on Saturday night, Teague then called SLC Commissioner Tom Burnett and told him the same thing. When the two games both UCA and Nicholls played against Northwestern were added — the step overlooked in the initial tiebreaker analysis — UCA clearly had the tiebreaker.

“When the conference sent out all the tiebreaking scenarios, it was a lengthy list and a lot of data and I accepted their conclusions that we were out unless we beat Northwestern State,” Teague said.

But after the UCA bus pulled into the Farris Center about 11 p.m. Saturday night, Teague, after confirmation from Burnett, phoned Pennell and East and said, “We’re in!” Pennell then informed the team that it will be making its first tournament appearance since 2013.

So, there were flashbacks of Steve Harvey and Miss Colombia/Phillipines and the Academy Awards and “La La Land” and “Wait. It’s no joke “Moonlight” won best picture.

Wait. No kidding. UCA is the No. 8 seed.

The late-night madness and crazinesss right at the beginning of March caused scrambling among the media, which initially learned of the situation through a series of Tweets.

The situation unfolded three hours after our deadline at the Log Cabin, which resulted in our Sunday print story having incorrect information about UCA’s season ending although it was correct at the time and accepted by both conference and team officials.

However, I’m proud to say that we immediately updated the story before midnight, both on our website and in social media by midnight and the Log Cabin was the first media to get out the complete story, including a clarifying statement by Burnett about what happened.

The tough part was Burnett having to break the news Saturday night to Nicholls, which had been revived about continuing the season and was making initial plans about its upcoming opponent.

Southland officials, after initially incorrectly applying their own tiebreaking procedure, eventually got it right and owned up to the mistake.

And all because a UCA assistant coach refused to accept things at face value.

A hidden figure. An unsung hero.

 

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