Arkansas-Little Rock men’s basketball coach Chris Beard listened to his players describe his halftime tirade in their post-game interview. Then he thanked them for “having my back.”
Clearly, Sun Belt tournament MVP Roger Woods and teammate Jalen Jackson were giving the PC version of what took place.
Responding to Beard’s tongue-lashing, the Trojans rallied past Louisiana-Monroe with a dominant second half, winning 70-50 on Sunday at Lakefront Arena and assuring their record-breaking season will include an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Trailing 33-28 at the break, the top-seeded Trojans (29-4) raised their defensive intensity several notches and went on an 18-4 run that left the Warhawks in their rear-view mirror.
“At halftime, I didn’t like our body language or our demeanor in the locker room, so we had an aggressive face-to-face talk,” Beard said. “We’ve had some special halves, but this is one of them. We were dialed in defensively. And offensively, that’s about as well as we can execute.”
Woods scored 15 of his team-high 19 points in the second half as Little Rock extended its school mark for victories in a season and tied a Sun Belt conference record.
“What coach says, he means,” Woods said. “We started out kind of slow in the first half, and he wanted us to pick it up and play together as a team.”
Woods hit eight of 10 shots and added nine rebounds, scoring 15 of his points in the second half. Johnson added 14 points for Little Rock, which was picked fifth in the Sun Belt coaches’ preseason poll but come together quickly under Beard in his first year.
Woods gave Arkansas-Little Rock the lead for good at 37-35, faking an outside shot and driving for an emphatic dunk with 15:01 left.
Marcus Johnson Jr. hit an open 3-pointer as the Trojans took their first double-digit lead, 53-42, at the 8:06 mark.
“We’ve put in a lot of work every day,” said Jackson, a junior-college transfer who had 11 points off the bench. “It’s paying off right now.”
Justin Roberson had 17 points for second-seeded Louisiana-Monroe (20-13), which entered the final on a 10-game winning streak and having won 14 of its past 15 after a 6-11 start. The Warhawks failed in their bid to reach their first NCAA tournament since 1996.
Getting little room to operate, the flustered Warhawks never recovered after committing four quick turnovers and missing their first six shots of the second half. They hit 6-of-25 after going 14-of-24 in the first half.
“We’ve been a good offensive team this year because we’ve made shots,” coach Keith Richard said. “Without any shot-making there in the second half, tension started to build up a little bit.”
After beating Louisiana-Monroe by one point at home and losing to the Warhawks on the road, the Trojans were prepared for a 40-minute battle.
“Monroe is the best team we’ve played this year,” Beard said. “I got no sleep last night knowing this was going to be a difficult game. Our players deserve all the credit.”
Johnson Jr. and Josh Hagins of Little Rock, Roberson and Majok Deng of Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Shawn Long joined Woods on the all-tournament team. Long was the Sun Belt Player of the Year.