By Paul Letlow, ULMWarhawks.com Online Columnist
MONROE, La. – The dagger shot came fell with three seconds left on Thursday night as Little Rock guard Markquis Nowell drilled a 40-foot 3-pointer to stun ULM 73-72 at Fant-Ewing Coliseum in the Sun Belt Conference opener for both teams.
But the damage was done with a slow start and a staggering finish that cost the Warhawks their chance to begin conference play with a win. Instead, ULM lost its third-straight to fall to 4-5 overall, 0-1 in the Sun Belt.
ULM trailed by 10 points at halftime, led by as many as 10 points with a big turnaround in the second half but then didn’t hit a bucket over the final five minutes.
“It’s a shame we lost because we did play a great second half up until the final three minutes,” Richard said. “We played some of our best offensive basketball of the year there in the second half. We scored 46 points and shot 62 percent from the field, 71 percent from the 3-point line and came back from a 10-point deficit and went up 10.
“But the game is played for 40 minutes and in the last three or four minutes, we missed three free throws, we had three turnovers and you can’t do that to close out a game.”
JD Williams led ULM with 24 points, one short of his career high and Michael Ertel added 23 for a ULM team that shot 54.2 percent from the floor and made 7-of-12 3-pointers. But ULM also made just 13-of-22 free throws (59.1 percent) and committed 17 turnovers leading to 16 Little Rock points.
ULM shook up the starting lineup for the fourth time in four games in an effort to help the Warhawks shake the woes that have plagued the squad of late.
But an inconsistent offense littered with too many turnovers continued to hamper ULM ,and the team couldn’t put Little Rock away when it had a chance. The Warhawks remixed the starting lineup as guards Ertel, Williams, Jalen Hodge and forwards Tyree White and D’Andre Bernard got the first crack at the Trojans.
The guard-oriented lineup had its moments, but Little Rock had the hottest hand in the game as Nowell, the top scorer in the Sun Belt Conference, paced the Trojans (7-5, 1-1 Sun Belt) with 33 points and eight 3-pointers.
A basket separated the two teams through most of the first 12 minutes before ULM hit a scoring drought of more than four minutes. Little Rock used a 9-0 run to go up 28-20 by the 4:32 mark.
The Trojans finished the half with an 8-4 run to lead 36-26 by intermission. ULM made 12 turnovers and shot 46 percent through the first 20 minutes, with Ertel and Williams scoring nine points each. Little Rock shot 50 percent from the floor led by Nowell’s 15 points and four 3-pointers.
The second half was a different story for the home team, until the final stretch.
A pair of 3-pointers by Tyree White and Williams, and a driving layup by Williams helped ULM quickly shave the lead to 38-34 coming out of the break.
White’s jumper at the 14:46 mark tied the game at 41 as the Warhawks completely erased their double-digit deficit.
An Ertel layup with 11:06 remaining gave ULM a 50-48 edge, its first lead since the 8:27 mark of the first half. ULM hit 10-of-14 field goals coming out of the locker room to turn the game around.
“We had to move the ball and drive it,” Richard said. “The way they were playing their man-to-man defense; they were trying to pen us up on each sideline. You had to drive it and our players needed to get out of the mode that they were going to pass the ball around and shoot a bunch of threes. This was about driving the ball and being aggressive with it.”
Defensively, ULM did a better job as well as the Trojans shot 5-of-15 from the floor while falling behind 56-51. Little Rock went more than eight minutes in all without scoring as ULM built its lead to 10 at 62-52.
But Little Rock pushed back to get within four points at 67-63 at the 2:27 mark as ULM hit another dry spell without a field goal. Nowell’s 3-pointer with 36 seconds to go made it 69-66.
Ertel hit a pair of free throws, but Nowell answered with another 3-pointer to bring his team closer at 71-69 with 22.7 showing.
With ULM leading 72-70 after a Little Rock free throw, the officials called a jump ball as Ertel dribbled up the court and gave the Trojans the ball with 11.7 remaining. The Trojans inbounded and Nowell swished the long 3-pointer to complete the comeback.
“That kid was 40, 45 feet, out but that’s not what lost the game,” Richard said. “We didn’t close it out. It took three turnovers and three missed free throws to lose that lead. We get no shots. It’s a tough, tough loss for us.”
Up next: ULM meets Arkansas State at Fant-Ewing Coliseum on Saturday, Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. to complete a two-game Sun Belt Conference homestand.
Tail feathers: The Warhawks fell to 4-10 in Sun Belt Conference openers. … Ertel reached double figures for the 16th-straight game, including six 20-point efforts. He also had three assists to reach 200 for his career. … Little Rock improved to 19-17 in the all-time series. ULM had won three straight before Thursday’s loss.