A-State edges UALR for weekend sweep

Arkansas State’s Marquis Eaton drives to the basket during Saturday’s game at Arkansas-Little Rock. The Red Wolves won 67-65 to complete a weekend sweep of the Trojans.

Round one went to Arkansas State in relatively decisive fashion.

Round two belonged to the Red Wolves after a much closer finish.

Christian Willis scored with 12 seconds remaining in Saturday’s game in Little Rock, lifting ASU to a 67-65 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock and a weekend sweep in Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball.

The Red Wolves pounced quickly on their in-state rival Friday night in Jonesboro, leading by as many as 20 points in the first half on their way to a 73-62 victory at First National Bank Arena.

ASU (10-9, 7-5 Sun Belt) will carry a four-game winning streak into next weekend's home series against Texas State, while UALR (10-11, 6-8 Sun Belt) has lost four in a row. The Sun Belt canceled the Red Wolves' makeup game Tuesday at Texas State because of wintry weather conditions.

Senior guard Marquis Eaton scored 23 points and Willis finished with 12 to lead the Red Wolves on Saturday. ASU led by as many as 17 points in the second half, but UALR roared back to take the lead with just over seven minutes remaining and the teams weren’t separated by more than five points the rest of the game.

“We weathered the storm in the second half,” ASU head coach Mike Balado said after Saturday’s game. “I thought we had a great win and we’re looking forward to playing next week.”

ASU led 65-61 when Antwon Jackson scored with 1:13 remaining. UALR’s Nikola Maric made two free throws with 1:06 remaining and, after a Red Wolves turnover, tied the score on a layup with 43 seconds to play.

The Trojans blocked a shot by Eaton with 19 seconds left, but Jackson grabbed the rebound to set up Willis’ basket.

“After the game last night, I was watching film and I went out to the court and C-Will was out there until about midnight shooting,” Balado said. “He didn’t have a good night last night and that’s just the way he is. He’s worked so hard.”

UALR’s CJ White missed a 3-pointer at the end. Four players scored in double digits for UALR, led by Maric with 16 points.

The Red Wolves led by double digits less than nine minutes into Friday’s game and kept at least an eight-point margin the rest of the evening. The Red Wolves enjoyed a 40-22 lead at halftime and were never threatened in the final 20 minutes, although UALR did creep within nine points with just over a minute to play.

“I was very proud of the way they came out, with the intensity they played and executed the scouting report,” Balado said of his team Friday. “Defensively we did a couple of different things to neutralize their bigs, which I thought was good for us early in the game, and offensively we didn’t change much. We kind of do what we do, push the pace and try to score in transition.”

Eaton and Caleb Fields controlled the backcourt for ASU on Friday. Eaton, this week’s Sun Belt Player of the Week, gave another strong performance with 17 points and eight assists.

Fields finished with 13 points and six assists. Neither Eaton nor Fields had a turnover despite the two combining to play nearly 66 minutes.

“We just came out and executed, kept the pace going. Their interior is really strong, so that was most of our emphasis,” Eaton said. “I feel like we did a pretty good job. They got a couple of offensive rebounds, but we limited it. They’re so big, so that was going to come, but we just had to limit it.”

Freshman forward Norchad Omier had 11 points and 11 rebounds in his 11th double-double of the season for ASU on Friday.

Ruot Monyyong also scored 11 points for UALR. Ben Coupet Jr. was 5-of-8 from the 3-point line in leading the Trojans with 22 points.

The Red Wolves trailed briefly on two occasions in the first five minutes. They took the lead for good during a 15-2 run that included all eight of Malcolm Farrington’s points, including two 3-pointers.

A 12-0 run gave the Red Wolves a 35-15 lead with 3:39 remaining in the half. Five different ASU players scored during the run, with Avery Felts sinking the first of his two 3s and Eaton making three free throws after being fouled outside the arc.

Eaton’s 3 gave ASU a 45-24 lead, its largest, with 17:17 left in the game. The Trojans were 13-of-22 (59.1 percent) from the field in the second half, but the Red Wolves were 10-of-22 (45.5 percent) and sank 10-of-14 free throws to keep a comfortable distance from the visitors.

“I feel like everybody is embracing their role, like everybody is trying to be a star in their role, and we didn’t really have that at the beginning (of the season),” Eaton said.