The two best teams in the Sun Belt conference put on a show in the championship game.
Taylor Gault had 21 points and Arkansas-Little Rock closed with an 11-5 run, beating Arkansas State 78-72 in the final of the Sun Belt Conference women’s tournament on Saturday night at Lakefront Arena.
No. 1 seed UALR (28-4) took the lead for good — 69-67 — on Kiera Clark’s putback with 2:34 left after a steal, then sealed the victory by forcing two more turnovers in the final minute. Alexius Dawn’s steal and layup to make the score 76-72 with 36.4 seconds, and Clark came up with another steal on second-seeded Arkansas State’s next possession.
Dawn had 17 points and five steals. Ka’Nesheia Cobbins added 15 points, six assists and five rebounds for the Trojans, who took their third tournament title in five years.
Sun Belt Player of the Year Aundrea Gamble led Arkansas State (23-10) with 27 points but did not score in the last 6:50 and committed a costly turnover that led to UALR’s clinching basket. Jasmine Hunt added 11 points for the Red Wolves, who never have been to the NCAA tournament and suffered their second consecutive heartbreaking defeat in a final. Last year they lost 61-60 to Western Kentucky.
The teams split their regular-season meetings, with Arkansas State winning by 1 at home and UALR winning by two at home, and they had yet another nail-biter this time. Neither led by double digits, and the largest separation was 3 points from the 8:00 minute mark of the second half until Cobbins’ 3-point play put UALR up 72-67 with 2:08 left.
Gamble scored three consecutive baskets on drives into the lane as Arkansas State opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to go ahead 51-47 with 15:19 left. By that time, the Red Wolves already had more points than UALR, the nation’s third-stingiest defense, allowed per game for the season (50.4).
UALR led 43-38 at halftime despite allowing more points in the opening 20 minutes than in any game this year. Arkansas State connected on 17 of 30 shots (56.7) before halftime, with UALR right behind at 16 for 30.
The Red Wolves started off hot, hitting seven of their first 11 shots to take an early 15-9 lead. During that stretch, Khadija Brown-Haywood made two contested outside jumpers, Hanna Qedan sank an improvised leaner just before the shot clock expired and Gamble drained a 3-pointer.
UALR responded quickly, with Dawn and Gault each scoring 8 points as the Trojans went on a 20-6 run to go ahead 29-21. Dawn hit a pair of 3s, while Gault made a 3 and converted a 3-point play after being fouled on a driving basket.