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Sun Belt Notebook

February 9, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Sun Belt Conference Notebook

by Zach Van Hart

Bench performers

Starting is overrated, according to several bench performers throughout the Sun Belt Conference. During the past seven days alone, four players came up huge for their respective teams.

Starting with the conference’s frontrunner Louisiana Lafayette, the Cajuns discovered another reliable scoring threat in sophomore guard Dwayne Mitchell. Against North Texas Thursday, Mitchell exploded for a game-high 24 points, going 10-of-12 from the field. Averaging just 10.2 points per game, Mitchell’s previous season high was fifteen, against Valpo in December.

For Arkansas Little Rock, senior guard and regular starter Jamal Holden came off the bench and played like he has all season, going for sixteen on 7-of-8 shooting from the field. Holden is averaging 11.3 points per game and is not affected by coming off the bench.

Wednesday’s game between New Orleans and Arkansas State saw great performances by bench players on both teams. For the Privateers, sophomore Billy McDade came out of nowhere to score 27 points in a losing effort. Having scored only 78 points during fifteen games this season (5.5 per game), McDade went 6-of-8 from the behind the three-point line and was the lone bright spot for New Orleans.

On the winning side of the game, the Indians’ Tevoris Thompson had his best shooting day in two months, scoring 20 points. Averaging 12.5 points per game, Thompson is a capable but streaky scorer. Prior to Wednesday’s win, Thompson had scored only twelve points during the past three games combined.

Cajuns above the rest

Right now, ten teams are playing for second in the Sun Belt, as the Louisiana Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns are clearly above the rest of the league. They are 12-5 overall and 7-1 in conference play, two games ahead of everyone else. Their lone bump in the road came against South Alabama, 76-73, a month ago.

While the Cajuns have five losses, almost every one was either close and/or against a quality opponent. Outside of its conference loss, they fell at Georgia Tech, at Dayton, at Xavier by four and at No. 10 Arizona by only three.

The beauty to the Cajuns is they can beat you with either good offense or defense. They are great scoring team, but if putting the clamps down on their opposition is the key to winning, they can win the defense struggle too. Their dominance will be tested soon enough, after facing Denver at home Saturday; the Cajuns will play its next five games on the road.

Player of the week

James Moore, New Mexico State

With second-leading scorer Duane John out of the lineup, Moore stepped up his game last week. He averaged 20 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.0 assists, shot 14-of-20 from the field and 12-of-13 from the free-throw line, as the Aggies split their games against Middle Tennessee State and Denver.

The rest of the Sun Belt

Arkansas Little Rock (12-9, 5-3)

The Trojans last a heartbreaker at Arkansas State last week, 57-56, before recovering Thursday to defeat South Alabama easily, 86-53. Against the Indians last week, the rivals went back and forth until the final 0.3 seconds. With Arkansas State clinging to a one-point lead, freshman Zack Wright was fouled shooting a layup with 0.3 ticks left. Wright though missed the first free throw, but then made the second. There was not enough time though for the Trojans to foul or steal the ball, as the Indians escaped with the win. Thursday, five players scored in double digits, led by Holden’s sixteen points mentioned earlier. Even with eighteen turnovers and only five offensive rebounds, the Trojans destroyed the Jaguars by shooting a ridiculous 31-of-44 from the field. Up next – at New Orleans, Feb. 7.

Arkansas State (13-7, 4-5)

The Indians are starting to recover from a five-game losing streak during the latter half of January, winning two-straight. The win that ended the streak was the above thriller against rival Arkansas Little Rock. J.J. Montgomery, who still leads the Sun Belt in scoring at 19.2 points per game, went for 28 against the Trojans. His final point, a free throw with six seconds remaining, proved to be the game-winner. Against New Orleans Thursday, ASU trailed by one point at the half, 43-42, before putting on an offensive clinic during the second 20 minutes and cruised to a 94-74 win. Five players scored in double digits, led by yet another bench player mentioned above, Tevoris Thompson, who finished with 20 points. Up next – at South Alabama, Feb. 7.

Denver (13-7, 5-3)

The Pioneers are moving right along, having won three straight and tied for the second-best conference mark in the Sun Belt. Last weekend, Denver held off a tough New Orleans squad, coming back in the second half for a 76-73 win at home. Junior Rodney Billups exploded for 23 points and hit a season-high five three-pointers for the Pioneers, including the game-winner from deep with eight seconds remaining. The late trey completed a twelve-point second half comeback by Denver. Thursday, they went on the road and won easily against New Mexico State, 68-54. The Aggies only managed fourteen first half points, as the Pioneers led by 20 at the half. New Mexico State made it closer during the second half but it was too little, too late. Up next – at Louisiana Lafayette, Feb. 7.

Florida International (3-16, 0-7)

The losing streak is at nine and the games are not getting any closers for the Panthers. Last weekend, Florida International lost at home to Western Kentucky, 55-42, the second-straight game it scored seven touchdowns and fourth game out of the last five it failed to score 50 points or more. The Panthers had more turnovers (fifteen) than field goals (fourteen) and assists and offensive rebounds combined (thirteen). The bright side is they only have one game this week. The brighter side is the game is at home against Middle Tennessee State, a team that’s lost three straight. If a conference win is coming, this could be it.

Middle Tennessee State (11-9, 3-4)

While the Blue Raiders have lost three games in a row, the past two are not that bad. Last weekend, Middle Tennessee State hosted Louisiana Lafayette, already known as the cream of the crop in the Sun Belt this year. The Raiders played the Cajuns pretty tight, just could never knocked down a big shot or get the momentum. Tommy Gunn led the team with sixteen points. Then Thursday night, the Raiders trailed by as much as thirteen points during the second half before losing a close one, 70-66. Middle Tennessee State got the lead down to a one possession game at 65-62, but would never get closer. Gunn, off the bench, again led the Raiders, this time with seventeen points. Up next – at Florida International, Feb. 7.

New Mexico State (9-10, 3-5)

The Aggies are the perplexing team of the Sun Belt. They own a 2-2 road record in conference, but have lost three out of four home games against Sun Belt foes. Last week, New Mexico State went on the road and pulled a mild upset, beating Middle Tennessee State, 81-76. Senior James Moore scored a season high 24 points and was almost perfect shooting, going 8-of-9 from the field and 8-of-8 from the free-throw line. Thursday, the Aggies could not buy a bucket and lost at home to Denver, 68-54. Duane John, the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.9 points per game, did not play for the first time since becoming eligible mid-December. The Pioneers dominated New Mexico State on the boards, 37-24. Up next – against North Texas, Feb. 7.

New Orleans (10-11, 4-4)

Again, the Privateers had been playing several close games of late. Again, they decided to take a break Thursday. After three-straight games decided by three points or less, New Orleans was blown out Wednesday night at Arkansas State, 94-74. The loss dropped the Privateers under .500 for the first time all season. The good news for New Orleans is six of their final seven games are at home, with only a date against lowly Florida International being their lone away game. The lone highlight from Wednesday’s loss was the play of Billy McDade mentioned above. The Indians’ 94 points were the most New Orleans had allowed all season. Up next – against Arkansas Little Rock, Feb. 7.

North Texas (10-10, 5-3)

The road warriors of the Sun Belt finally came back to Earth Thursday, as the Mean Green lost its first conference game away from Denton, 94-81, to Louisiana Lafayette. While its first two conference losses were by a combined four points, North Texas could not hang with the leaders of the Sun Belt. The Cajuns pulled away during the second half thanks to Dwayne Mitchell’s outstanding shooting. As mentioned earlier, Mitchell shot 10-of-12 from the field and scored 25 points. The Mean Green received balanced production as eight players scored between seven and fourteen points, but watched their defense fall apart during the second half. Luckily, fun enough, five of North Texas’ last seven games are on the road. Up next – at New Mexico State, Feb. 7.

South Alabama (9-11, 3-5)

The Jaguars are struggling as bad as any team in the Sun Belt is right now, having lost three-straight and four-straight conference games. Thursday South Alabama suffered its worst loss of the season, 86-53 at Arkansas Little Rock. The Trojans were simply on fire all night, shooting 75 percent from the field and 81 percent from the free-throw line. The Jaguars have now allowed 78-plus points three-straight games, after allowing 78-plus only three times prior the entire season. Against North Texas last weekend, South Alabama came back from a seventeen-point halftime deficit but could not hold off the Mean Green and lost, 85-77. Up next – against Arkansas State, Feb. 7.

Western Kentucky (10-10, 5-4)

After a long, uphill battle, the Hilltoppers have finally reached .500 for the season after defeating Middle Tennessee State Thursday, 70-66. After starting the season 0-5 ad 0-2 in conference, Western Kentucky has won five of its last seven games. Thursday, the Hilltoppers overcame a resilient Blue Raiders team to win a tough Sun Belt game. Anthony Winchester led WKU with eighteen points, after scoring only eight during the team’s 55-42 win against Florida International last weekend. It was the Hilltoppers second-straight win after its epic loss to Louisiana Lafayette mentioned earlier. Up next – against West Virginia Tech, Feb. 7.


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