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Sun Belt Notebook

January 16, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Sun Belt Notebook

by Andria Wenzel

Road Trip Proves Profitable

Alone at the top of the heap is where the University of Denver Pioneers sit. They are not flashy or record breakers – they don’t sell out their arena every night. But after going on the road to open up the Sun Belt Conference, the Pioneers are surely one thing – undefeated in conference play. In fact, after their road sweep, they are the only team in the Sun Belt that can boast a conference record without a loss. And how did they do it? Consistency.

Senior guard and team captain B.J. Pratt continues to lead his team down the road to wins. He has regularly finished games in double figures and is now averaging 15.6 points per game. He scored 11 points in the Pioneer’s first conference game on Thursday at Florida International. He teamed up with his backcourt mate, sophomore Erik Benzel, to out-duel the ever-impressive Eulis Baez who was held to just 15 points. Benzel finished with 11 in the 71-60 win. The pleasant surprise of the night for coach Terry Carroll may have been junior forward Carvell McAlister, who came off the bench and used his 6-foot-8 frame to score 12 points and snag four rebounds in the post.

The Pioneers then traveled to the University of North Texas, where Benzel and Pratt held the soon-to-be record setting Chris Davis to 6-of-13 for just 16 points. For Davis, believe it or not, that is not one of his best performances. In the 59-55 Denver victory, the Pioneers went to 10-6, 2-0 and the Mean Green dropped to 6-8, 0-2.

Pratt scored 14 points including two early 3-pointers, while McAlister again gave an outstanding effort, scoring 10 points and getting it done on the boards with five rebounds. Alongside McAlister was junior center Brett Starkey, who has emerged this season as someone the Pioneers can count on in the frontcourt. Starkey put up nine points, but most importantly, played a significant role in the 45-35 rebounding advantage Denver had. Starkey brought down 16 rebounds.

The contest was a close one, as the Pioneers got their final lead of the game, 55-52, with just 1:50 remaining.

They’re Back . . .

Western Kentucky may be tired of all the talk, the talk that says they are far from last season’s top-25 form. WKU’s 2001-02 rise into Division I respectability and their 2002-03 decline back into obscurity may have grinded to a screeching halt.

After crawling to a 7-6 record and dropping their first game in the Sun Belt, the Hilltoppers turned it around with the return of 7’1″ center Chris Marcus in a wild weekend in Arkansas. WKU has been missing their inside monster from last season due to a foot injury, and although Marcus isn’t anywhere close to 100 percent his presence seems to inexplicably coincide with the reemergence of a deadly Hilltoppers squad.

Their first win in the Sun Belt came Jan. 9 at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans never had the lead and Marcus managed six points and two boards in his return. Senior guard Jibrahn Ike had 17 for UALR and guard Mark Green had 14.

But WKU outplayed UALR in all aspects of the game. They out-rebounded and out shot them, but more significantly, three of the Hilltoppers starting five scored 16 points apiece. In the absence of Marcus, forward Nate Williams, who was a minimal contributor last season, has brought his game to another level in order to help out WKU in their depleted frontcourt. The 6-foot-8 senior had 16 points in WKU’s first Sun Belt win while senior guard Filip Videnov and senior forward David Boyden were the other two starters to finish with 16. Junior guard Mike Wells continues to try to elevate his game that was 8.9 points per game last season, as he had nine against the Trojans.

Two nights later the Hilltoppers were at Arkansas State battling the Indians. Marcus continued his comeback, this time playing 11 minutes and scoring four points while snagging five rebounds. With their superstar present in limited action, WKU took an early 15-2 lead and was up 40-18 with only two minutes to go before halftime. Although the Indians mounted a comeback, it came up about eight points short of a miracle. The Hilltoppers hung on for the 77-69 win. Williams led WKU with 18 points and seven rebounds and Boyden also helped out in the frontcourt with 11 points and four rebounds. Videnov and Wells controlled he backcourt with 15 and 13 points, respectively. If Marcus continues to improve and Williams’ frontcourt dominance persists along with Wells and Videnov in the backcourt, the Hilltoppers might just have success in the Sun Belt after all the talk.

Arkansas isn’t so friendly to Blue Raiders

After their loss to WKU, a rejuvenated UALR (10-6, 1-1) handed a previously undefeated Middle Tennessee State their first conference loss. The Blue Raiders had a tough time of it; traveling to Arkansas, they picked up a 65-58 victory at Arkansas State, but two days later didn’t have enough left in the reserve tank and could not hang in against UALR.

The Trojans rebounded from their loss against WKU to stun the undefeated Blue Raiders in a 71-62 upset overtime win. It was a contest in which the Trojans’ Ike scored 19 points while Green had 16. The Blue Raiders countered with senior guard John Humphrey, who matched Ike with 19, and junior guard Tommy Gunn who had 16. The most critical statistic was that MT’s second leading scorer William Pippen was held to just four points and three rebounds.

UALR’s Jake Yancey tied the game at 55-55 with 12 seconds remaining. The Trojans continued their scoring in overtime, rolling past a winded Middle Tennessee State.

On the rebound

After dropping their first two games in the Sun Belt, New Mexico State finally picked up a win at the University of South Alabama (7-7, 1-2). It took four of the Aggies to score in double figures in order for NMS (9-4, 1-2) to get past the Jaguars. Junior forward James Moore led all scorers with 21 points and eight rebounds, while center Chris Jackson contributed 12 points but a more essential 13 rebounds. But the post play didn’t get it all done. Guard Brandon Mason registered 20 points while Jason Fontenet scored 16 points and dished out eight assists.

The Aggies shot 52 percent for the game including 6-of-13 from beyond the arc. NMS held the Jaguars to 41 percent shooting while Malerick Bedden of USA had 17 points in 34 minutes.

Cajuns indiscreetly prevent Privateer Streak

The University of New Orleans was undefeated until the team met up with the University of Louisiana-Lafayette on Jan 11. in New Orleans. After getting a 65-55 win over NMS two days prior, UNO struggled in a 78-71 loss to the Ragin Cajuns (10-5, 2-1). The Privateers were led by junior guard Johnell Smith, who had 15 points, and sophomore forward Victor Brown, who also had 15 snd added seven rebounds. Freshman forward Billy McDade came off the bench in the final ten minutes and hit four 3-pointers in an attempt to get the Privateer’s lead back. The Cajuns forced other members of the UNO team to step up, as they focused their defensive effort on shutting down senior forward Hector Romero, who had 12 points and six rebounds.

For the Cajuns, senior swingman Anthony Johnson led all scorers with 24 points. Sophomore forward Cedric Williams added 13 points and junior guard Laurie Bridges had 10.


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