Heartbreak hit Arkansas State one round earlier than the past two years at the Sun Belt Conference women’s basketball tournament.
After dominating the league in the regular season, the top-seeded Red Wolves could not keep up with No. 4 seed Troy, falling 96-89 to the hot-shooting Trojans in the semifinals on Friday at Lakefront Arena.
Arkansas State (26-5), which lost late second-half leads in the 2014 and 2015 championship games, will have to wait three agonizing days to find out whether it receives an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in program history. This is the last chance for the Red Wolves’ five senior starters, including three-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Aundrea Gamble.
“All the credit goes to Troy,” Arkansas State coach Brian Boyer said. “They just played a phenomenal game where they were just in attack mode. The entire game, they just hit shot after big shot after big shot. It was going to take a tremendous effort from us to beat them the way they were playing.”
Troy (19-12) came out firing, taking a 32-28 lead at the end of the first quarter as both teams were on pace to score more than 100 points. When Arkansas State responded by holding the Trojans to 8 points in the second quarter to go ahead 44-40, the result appeared to be inevitable.
Instead, Troy ripped off a 32-10 run to start the third quarter and held on to win for its seventh consecutive victory and ninth in its past 10 games after a six-game skid.
The Trojans hit 12 of 27 3-pointers while Arkansas State went 3 of 13.
Forward Caitlyn Ramirez led Troy with 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Guard Amanda Mendoza was right behind her, sinking six 3s to finish with 22 points. Point guard Ashley Beverly Kelley, a first-team All-Sun Belt selection, added 17 points and a career-high 14 assists.
Gamble had 26 points and eight assists, but 17 of her points came after Arkansas State fell behind by 18. Brittney Gill scored 22 but missed 14 of her last 18 shots.
“We knew we were the underdogs coming in, and we fought like it,” Troy coach Chanda Rigby said. “We didn’t take possessions off.”
They also did not let up, maintaining the breakneck tempo Rigby teaches until the final few minutes rather than milking the clock. They handed Arkansas State its largest deficit of the year 72-54 late in the third quarter, and kept their poise in the fourth.
“Sometimes if the coach will get out of the way, a team can win,” Rigby said. “One of the lessons we learned when we lost six in a row was we’d get a lead and I’d call timeout and try to get us to play smart basketball. It just doesn’t work for my team. We have to keep pushing. It’s all we know.”
A little luck helped, too. After Arkansas State closed to 88-81 with 3:32 left, Beverly Kelley banked in a 3-pointer.
Baskets like that left the Red Wolves shaking their heads. With an RPI of 39 before the game, they have a shot at an at-large bid, but they never intended to leave the decision in the hands of the selection committee.
The pain was etched on Gamble’s face as she discussed what went wrong. Arkansas State’s only loss in league play was by 2 points at defending champion Little Rock, and the Red Wolves outscored Troy 101-81 and 94-80 in their regular season meetings.
“It was really frustrating,” Gamble said. “It was all day. We couldn’t get a stop.”