Bears head toward ‘familiar’ territory

TEMPE, Ariz. _ The University of Central Arkansas Bears will play in front of some friendly faces and in a familiar setting Thursday when they play their final nonconference tuneup before Southland Conference play begins on Dec. 31.

The Bears face the Pac-12 Arizona State Sun Devils at 2 p.m. Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena, in an area more than familiar to several UCA players and coaches.

UCA head coach Russ Pennell coached at three colleges in Arizona, including Arizona State from 1998 to 2004, Arizona and Grand Canyon University. His current associate head coach, Anthony Boone, was also his assistant at GCU.

Two UCA players, senior Jeff Lowery and junior Jordan Howard, played their high school basketball in the Phoenix area. Howard played at Perry High School in Chandler, Ariz., while Lowery played at Desert Vista High School and also at GCU. Lowery’s older brother, Josh, an assistant on the UCA staff, also played at Desert Vista and at GCU. Tyler Miller, UCA’s director of operations, is also from Chandler and payed at Basha High School. Senior guard Derreck Brooks played at Phoenix College before transferring to UCA.

Howard’s father, Chuck, is the director of performance athletics at GCU, beginning in 2009 during Pennell’s tenure.

The Bears, continuing the toughest nonconference schedule in school history, are coming off a disappointing 111-85 loss at Morehead (Ky.) State on Monday on the first leg of this trip. In that game, Howard broke the career 3-point record at UCA, connecting on eight from beyond the arc, and now has 210 3-pointers in fewer than three full seasons at UCA. Junior Mathieu Kamba added 17 points and six rebounds for the Bears, who lost their eighth consecutive game, including two against Top 15 teams.

The Sun Devils (6-6), under second-year head coach and former Duke star Bobby Hurley, lost to No. 9 Creighton, 96-85 ,on Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Arena. The visiting Bulldogs shot 53.2 percent overall (66.7 in the second half) and made 14 of 25 (56 percent) from 3-point range against the Sun Devils. ASU senior forward Obinna Oleka had 19 points and 16 rebounds, while junior guard Tra Holder and senior guard Torian Graham scored 24 points each.

Howard leads the Bears in scoring at 17.8 points per game, and is second in the SLC. He is seventh in the SLC in three-point percentage at 46.3 percent, and second in free-throw shooting at 93.6 percent. Kamba, a junior from Calgary, Alberta, leads the Bears in rebounding with 6.6 per game. Lowery is the leader in assists at 2.9 per game, senior Derreck Brooks is tops in blocked shots (1.2) and Howard is No. 1 in steals (1.7).

For the Sun Devils, Graham is the top scorer at 17.1 points per game,while Oleka is averaging a double-double at 12.7 points and 10.3 rebounds. ASU is getting 68.7 of its 81.1 points per game from its starters, with four of the starters averaging at least 31 minutes per game. Graham and junior guard Shannon Evans (15.3 ppg) both transferred from Buffalo, Hurley’s previous coaching spot. ASU has lost starting freshman forward Sam Cunliffe, a four-star recruit who will apparently transfer. Cunliffe was averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds through 10 games at ASU.

The Bears have allowed an SLC-high 11.7 3-pointers a game this season, and the Sun Devils have been an ocassionally prolific perimeter shooting team. ASU has made double-figure three-pointers four times this season, including 18 against UNLV and 15 against The Citadal. However, they were also just 4 of 19 against New Mexico State and 4 of 26 against Purdue. They made 7 of 25 (28 percent) against Creighton on Tuesday night.

The Bears will take an eight-day holiday break before hosting Sam Houston State in the conference opener on Saturday, Dec. 31 at the Farris Center.

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