In their biggest game of the season — a game they didn’t think they would play until last month — an oft-occurring problem plagued the Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions.
They labored through one of their coldest shooting periods of basketball this season, making only 24.1 percent from the floor in the first half of a SWAC tournament game against Alabama A&M. UAPB never could pull itself out of a deep halftime hole and lost 69-50 to a team it defeated twice this season.
“A lot of those guys didn’t know what it took to get up for the tournament,” UAPB coach George Ivory said, noting senior Daniel Broughton and junior Jaylon Floyd were the only Lions going into Houston’s Toyota Center with SWAC tournament experience. “You can tell them, but they don’t really know until they experience it. Until you get into that experience and you get to battling, you realize the other team won’t lay down.”
Ivory did say the Lions — who finished 13-18 overall and 11-7 in the SWAC — were loose and having fun after two “solid” practices in preparation. But the loss was not how they wanted to make their unexpected splash into the tournament.
UAPB finished hitting 32.1 percent from the floor (17 for 53), a microcosm to a season that saw them ranked 309th out of 345 NCAA Division I teams in field-goal shooting (41.1 percent).
“I looked at it as a situation where we came out really cold (in that game),” Ivory said. “It’s hard to beat somebody when you come out and shoot like that. Then again, I saw it as a situation where the guys came out and competed. They played hard.”
It’s what the Lions have had to do all season, from their first 2-0 start as a Division I team — albeit against two Division II programs — to taking on overpowering, nationally-ranked teams, to an 18-game grind in the SWAC that earned them fourth place.
Ivory tends to take away from the season that was — his sixth at the helm in Pine Bluff — how the Lions continued to compete while battling several key injuries, namely DeAndre McIntyre’s torn ACL, Davon Haynes’ fractured shooting hand and Marcel Mosley’s broken jaw (in three places).
“You’re talking about two of our top guards not playing with us, not being able to play,” Ivory said of Mosley and McIntyre. “Marcel, to me, was playing the best basketball in the SWAC (when he got hurt). I thought it would make a difference with them.”
Not only did Mosley, who was hurt in the fourth-to-last game at Grambling State, lead UAPB in scoring and net 20 or more points in four of his last seven games, he and Tevin Hammond helped the Lions move into their current third place nationally in steals per game (9.5). Only Virginia Commonwealth (11.2) and Louisville (10.1) rank higher. Hammond is fifth individually with 2.68, while Mosley is 15th with 2.35.
McIntyre’s season-ending injury came in UAPB’s home opener against Southern, which eventually won the regular-season title in the SWAC. The 60-56 victory for the Jaguars came in the midst of a five-game losing streak that slipped UAPB to 2-5 in the conference.
UAPB nearly ended the skid on national television, dropping a 72-71 decision to eventual SWAC tourney champion Texas Southern in Houston.
“We had to get back in and get focused,” Ivory said. “We did a lot of conditioning, understanding how to withstand people’s runs. And we had to rebound better.”
UAPB turned the corner with five straight victories and nine in its last 11 regular-season games. It all started with a four-game homestand full of nail-biters — wins over Grambling State, Jackson State, Alabama A&M and Alabama State by a combined 11 points. The Lions then stunned Southern 64-58 in Baton Rouge before Alcorn State stopped the streak, 57-54, in Lorman, Miss.
By the following week, rumors of a 10-team SWAC tournament started to swirl. The conference was facing the prospect of only six teams in Houston, as UAPB, Mississippi Valley State, Southern and Grambling State were not eligible for NCAA Tournament play because of Academic Progress Rate issues.
But the NCAA approved the SWAC’s plan for awarding the automatic national tourney bid to the highest-seeded eligible team that finished the highest in Houston, allowing all teams into the conference tourney. And ESPN2 got its broadcasting rights’ worth as hometown favorite Texas Southern held off next-door rival Prairie View A&M in the title game.
The Lions, who were on a roll going into the Toyota Center, were no longer in the championship mix, however. Still, Ivory sees a benefit to being in Houston for the returning Lions in the 2014-15 season.
“It gives us experience,” Ivory said. “Guys coming back understand what it takes to win there. I thought it was a great experience for them to see what goes on everyday with the tournament.”
As the first spring signing day for recruits quickly approaches, Ivory is focusing on stocking up on post players while hoping to add another point guard. Broughton has completed his eligibility, while fellow seniors Chandler Savage and Haynes hope to be awarded an extra season because they did not play four seasons of college basketball.
UAPB also is expected to be eligible for the NCAA tournament again next season after being banned for two straight seasons.
“I look forward to the recruiting without that handing over our heads,” Ivory said.
Ivory also is hoping to add home games to next season’s nonconference schedule. The Lions took their usual beating on the road before conference play, including decisive losses to NCAA qualifiers Oklahoma State, Creighton and Iowa, and didn’t grace their own H.O. Clemmons Arena court for a game until Jan. 18.