Sun Belt Conference Notebook
Despite stars, Indians failing
When a team sports the conference’s top two scorers and top rebounder, it should also be at the top of the conference’s standings, right? Apparently this is not the case in the Sun Belt, as the Arkansas State Indians have dropped three-straight to fall to 11-5 overall and 2-3 in conference play. The problem for Arkansas State? Going on the road.
All three losses have occurred on the road. What makes it so hard to swallow for the Indians is that all three games have been close; they are only losing by an average of eight points and have not been blown out of any conference game. Yet they are simply not making the big plays down the stretch.
J.J. Montgomery, the team’s and conference’s leading scorer at 19.3 points per game, had another outstanding week. He scored 24 and 23 points, respectively, in losses to Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky. His counterpart, Dewarick Spencer, went for 22 against the Blue Raiders but struggled against the Hilltoppers, settling for ten.
Against MTSU, the Indians came back from a fourteen-point halftime deficit to force overtime, only to lose during the extra session. They used a different tactic against Western Kentucky, blowing its own nine-point halftime lead before losing 74-66. The good news for Arkansas State? Its next four games are at home, starting with Denver Friday.
Cajuns cooked late, again
Louisiana Lafayette could very easily be 11-1, own road wins against the likes of then No. 24 Dayton and No. 6 Arizona, along with always tough Xavier and likely be ranked itself. Instead, the Ragin’ Cajuns are at a respectable 7-5 and 2-1 in conference play. But they again lost a close one last week, this time falling on the road to South Alabama, 76-73.
The Cajuns led for nearly the entire second half and held onto a one-point lead and the ball with 30 seconds left, before Antoine Landry had the ball stolen from him, resulting in a Jaguar layup and their first lead since the seventeen-minute mark. Lafayette raced down the court, only to commit another turnover, this time a bad pass by Laurie Bridges with nine seconds remaining, clinched the win for South Alabama.
Landry and company responded with an easy, 85-64 home win against New Orleans. The late turnover against the Jaguars spoiled a good game and hot streak for Landry. During his last five games, Landry is averaging 20.2 points, 3.6 points, 2.2 assists and 4.2 three-pointers per game.
Jaguars doing it with defense
Coming into last week, South Alabama was 0-5 on the road and looking for a big win. They solved both problems, going 2-0 on the road to improve to 8-7 overall and 3-1 in the Sun Belt, good enough for first place. The Jaguars first won at Louisiana Lafayette, 76-73, before traveling to New Mexico State and leaving victorious, 56-46.
Defense was the key for South Alabama during both wins. First, it forced two key turnovers during the final 30 seconds against the Cajuns, resulting in the final four points of the game. It had not led for seventeen minutes before taking the lead with nineteen ticks to go.
South Alabama then shut the Aggies and its star, Duane John, down. New Mexico only hit fifteen field goals and John scored only two points; his previous season-low had been ten. The Jaguars now return home for two games, starting with Middle Tennessee State Thursday.
Player of the week
J.J. Montgomery, Arkansas State
Despite his team’s struggles, Montgomery had another big week, averaging 23.5 points and seven rebounds. He remains the conference’s leading scorer, averaging 19.3 points per game.
The rest of the Sun Belt
Arkansas Little Rock (9-7, 3-1)
The Trojans split their two games last week, falling for the first time in conference play at Western Kentucky, 86-71, before hanging on for its second Sun Belt road win of the season, 68-66, at Middle Tennessee State. The Hilltoppers’ starting five was completely dominate Thursday, equaling Arkansas Little Rock’s output of 71, as all five scored in double digits. Saturday’s win against the Blue Raiders was a very even match-up, but Middle Tennessee missed two shots during the final six seconds, allowing the Trojans to escape with the win. Jamal Holden led the team Saturday with nineteen points, while Brandon Freeman averaged 16.5 points during the week. Up next – against North Texas, Jan. 22.
Denver (9-6, 1-2)
The Pioneers, as recent as two weeks ago, were ranked in ESPN’s Mid-Major Top 10. Now, Denver has dropped two of three, both losses by slim margins. Last week the Pioneers fell to North Texas on the road, 72-67, before becoming the tenth team in eleven games to hand Florida International a ‘L’, winning 78-44. After trailing by 20 at the half, Denver started the final 20 minutes with a 12-0 run and took a one-point lead with eight minutes remaining. The Mean Green though came back and finished the game on a 10-6 run. Saturday’s game against the Panthers was never really a game. Denver led at the half 48-11, eleven players played eleven minutes or more and eight players scored between seven and eleven points. Up next – at Arkansas State, Jan. 22.
Florida International (3-12, 0-3)
The Golden Panthers only played one game last week, and that’s using the world “played” liberally. Denver whipped the floor with Florida Atlantic, 78-44. The score was not even that close, as the Pioneers led at the half 48-11. After Carlos Morbin hit a three-pointer 1:15 into the game, the Golden Panthers went more than fourteen minutes without a field goal. During that time, Denver went on an absolutely ridiculous 34-1 run. Not much else needs to be said. Up next – at North Texas, Jan. 19.
Middle Tennessee State (9-6, 1-1)
The Blue Raiders started conference play a week later than most and split their first two games and with the state of Arkansas. MTSU knocked off Arkansas State in overtime Thursday, 92-86, before losing a nail-bitter to Arkansas Little Rock, 68-66. After holding a commanding lead during the first half, the Raiders allowed ASU to make a furious second half comeback and send the game to extra minutes. During the extra session though, Mike Dean and company proved to be too much. The junior guard scored a career-high 30 points, missing all six of his two-point shots but going 7-of-12 from deep and 9-of-12 from the free throw line. Saturday, MTSU had two shots during the final six seconds to first tie and then win, but misfired on both attempts. Up next – at South Alabama, Jan. 22.
New Mexico State (7-7, 1-2)
The Aggies had only one home loss coming into last week, but promptly lost two home games last week, 70-59 to New Orleans and 56-46 to South Alabama. Against the Privateers, New Mexico State hung close for the first 25 minutes before giving up an 18-8 run it could not recover from. Second leading scorer and rebounding leader James Moore left the game early with an injured right knee. Moore returned against the Jaguars to score a team-high seventeen points. However, his teammate and Aggie leading scorer Duane John did not show up against South Alabama. John, averaging 16.1 points per game, hit one field goal and finished with two points. His previous season low was ten. Up next – at Louisiana Lafayette, Jan. 22.
New Orleans (8-8, 2-1)
The Privateers were getting so used to close games, they decided to take a break last week and either win or lose by a bunch. The accomplished both, winning at New Mexico State, 70-59, before losing at Louisiana Lafayette, 85-64. Johnell Smith scored a team-high eighteen points and scored eight of it during New Orleans crucial 18-8 run, enabling it to take control against the Aggies. Saturday, the Cajuns’ Antoine Landry put on a show, scoring 21 points, grabbing seven rebounds and dropping five dimes. Sophomore Billy McDade, receiving his most PT of the season, scored a season and game-high fourteen points in the losing cause. Up next – against Western Kentucky, Jan. 22.
North Texas (6-8, 1-1)
The Mean Green was victorious in its only game of the week, a 72-67 triumph against Denver, easily its best win of the season. North Texas surprised the Pioneers during the first half, taking a commanding 46-26 lead into the half. It turned out not to be so commanding, as Denver started the second half on a 12-0 run and claimed a one-point lead halfway through the half. However, the Mean Green stuck around, reclaimed the lead with four minutes to go and closed out the game on a 10-6 run. Shawnson Johnson continued his great senior season, scoring a game-high nineteen points. Up next – against Florida International, Jan. 19.
Western Kentucky (7-8, 2-2)
The Hilltoppers made another stride towards turning their season around last week, winning its first two conference games, both against tough competition. Western Kentucky stayed at home to knock off Arkansas Little Rock, 86-71, then just ten days removed from losing Arkansas State on the road, 79-76; it then repaid the favor with a 74-66 win. The starting five equaled Little Rock’s total of 71 points, as all five reached double figures. Against Arkansas State, junior guard Antonio Haynes was on fire, scoring a season high 26 points. Up next – at New Orleans, Jan. 22.