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UALR eyes return NCAA trip at Sun Belt tourney

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Solomon Bozeman provided the lasting memory of last season's Sun Belt Conference tournament.

The Trojans (15-15) shocked the field last season, winning the tournament and earning the school's first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years. They did so as a No. 5 seed and it was Bozeman, the league's player of the year, who sank a deep 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds remaining to lift UALR past North Texas 64-63.

Bozeman graduated after last season, along with four other seniors for the Trojans.

The remaining teammates hope to build on that memory and last year's success at this season's conference tournament, which begins Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark. The women's league tournament is held at the same time in the same town.

The Trojans rebounded from a difficult early nonconference schedule this season to post a 12-4 Sun Belt record and earn the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye at the tournament.

Coach Steve Shields hopes those who were a part of last season's championship run can apply what they learned this time around.

"There will be nerves on Sunday night, butterflies," Shields said. "You hope that we can take those experiences and they pay dividends for us in the tournament. We're really a different team, relatively a new team. Hopefully some of these older guys can lead from that standpoint."

The Trojans secured the Sun Belt's West Division title with a 62-60 win over rival Arkansas State last week. Senior D'Andre Williams scored 18 points and Courtney Jackson added 12 as UALR completed a remarkable turnaround after compiling a 3-11 nonconference record.

"I think that speaks to the character of this team and the lack of panic in maintaining their poise," Shields said. "The only thing that mattered were the people in that room, that was our approach. We just stayed together and everything on the exterior didn't matter."

Part of the reason for the early struggles was the turnover from last season. The Trojans lost their top three scorers, including Bozeman.

Also, Shields went out of his way to continue to schedule a difficult nonconference schedule that included trips to Michigan State and Kentucky.

It was against the No. 1 Wildcats that this UALR team came of age. The Trojans led Kentucky 30-27 at halftime before faltering in a 73-51 loss, but they showed Shields they were capable of playing at a high level. They won 10 of their final 14 games afterward.

"I think they gained a lot of confidence from that," Shields said.

Middle Tennessee (25-5), which defeated UCLA and Ole Miss this season, enters the tournament as the top seed, and Shield said the Blue Raiders have earned the right to be considered the favorite. That said, Shields called the field "wide open" and won't hesitate to remind the Trojans what they did last season as a No. 5 seed - in order to keep them from overlooking any opponent.

UALR lost its NCAA tournament first-round game against UNC-Asheville last season, but Shields said the appearance provided a boost in attention and appreciation throughout the offseason.

He'd like nothing more than to book a return trip at this season's conference championship game on Tuesday night.

"I think anytime you can break in to that NCAA tournament, that's what you play for," Shields said. "We've been fortunate to win five division championships in nine years and that's something we're all very proud of, but to get in the NCAA tournament, that's what it's all about. To experience that ... It's very gratifying."

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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