HOT SPRINGS — An empty chair on each side of him, UALR coach Joe Foley sat quietly, hands clasped. The confetti falling from the ceiling was for the other team.
A classy guy, he got up to congratulate each of the Middle Tennessee players who made the trek to his end of the court.
UALR’s 13-game winning streak and the dream of a fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament ended Monday because short and smart Shanice Cason, 20 feet from her prone basketball-possessing teammate, had the wherewithal to get a nearby official to call timeout. It was one of those things that does not appear in the box score.
What does show up is Cason’s driving layup that broke a 46-46 tie with barely a minute to play and her free throw a few seconds later that expanded the lead to three. The layup, which went through at the same time that Cason hit the deck, came after the Blue Raiders twice threw the ball in to leading scorer Ebony Rowe who was harassed all afternoon by Hannah Fohne except for the few moments Fohne was dealing with a nose bleed.
As you might expect in a tournament final with an NCAA bid on the line, the winners got contributions from many.
It was Rowe who made both ends of a one-and-one to tie it at 46 and Kortni Jones, who had made 28 of her last 30 prior to Monday, who made a free throw for a two-possession lead. Her second was weak and right. And, Laken Leonard who missed everything on a 3-point attempt and then came back a minute or so later and swished one from the same spot for a tie at 42.
When Taylor Gault missed from way outside with less than 20 seconds remaining, the Blue Raiders were home free. Foley, who demands defense, benched Gault and several other starters before the Trojans began their winning streak. It is a testament to his ability to communicate with his players that Gault returned to the starting lineup this weekend for the first time since mid-January and responded with a total of 40 points in the first two games of the tournament.
Foley turned to Gault because guard KaNesheia Cobbins, a starter throughout the winning streak, suffered a concussion on March 2.
Middle Tennessee started with Janay Brinkley on Gault and switched to Jones in the second half. The first time UALR had the ball, Brinkley had her right hand on Gault’s hip about 40 feet from the basket. Rarely did Gault get an open shot.
She scored 13 on Monday, but it was one of those stat lines that Kobe Bryant compiles when he takes it upon himself to carry the load. She shot 23 times and missed 17. In the second half, she was 2-of-10
As much as Middle Tennessee focused on Gault, UALR concentrated on stopping the 6-foot-2 Rowe, one of 30 finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year Award. Fohne, who looks to be only a few pounds north of frail, was in Rowe’s back on virtually every possession, holding her ground. While off the court, Fohne was peering around a trainer dealing with the blood from her nose.
Rowe got her 20 points the hard way, making 12-of-15 free throws.
Often, the Trojans’ defense was textbook, players retreating to help Fohne and then sprinting to defend the perimeter. Frustrated midway through the half, she complained about a no-call when she was shoved and lost the angle to the backboard.
The shame of it all is that the Summit Arena seats about 6,000 and it might have been one-third full. During the post-game celebration, the P.A. man said something about seeing everybody next year in New Orleans. I’m not sure many people noticed the reference to the end of the tournament run in Hot Springs. I can attest that each of the women’s finals have been entertaining to the end.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.