Clarksville, Ark.-The University of the Ozarks men's basketball team picked the right time to play its best basketball of the season.
By Larry Isch, Director of Public Relations The Eagles have won six of their last seven games, including an 83-60 victory over East Texas Baptist University on Saturday, to head into this week’s American Southwest Conference Tournament in Abilene, Texas, on a high note. The Eagles (16-8), who finished second in the ASC East, will meet ASC West Division champ McMurry University (23-1) at 8 p.m. Friday in one semifinal. Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-11) and Mississippi College (18-6) meet in the other semifinal. The championship game is Saturday night. The Eagles will be playing their first postseason game since 1995 when they advanced to the NAIA District 17 Tournament. The five-year hiatus came to an end this year thanks to an Eagles team that jelled at the right time. "We had a lot of new players and I think that they’re just now getting comfortable with one another on the court," Ozarks Coach Johnny Johnson said. "Our kids have had a whole season of playing together and we’ve started coming together as a team the past two or three weeks." Johnson also credited his team’s defensive effort in helping the Eagles find success in last part of the season. "Our defensive intensity, especially our halfcourt man-to-man, has been very good lately," he said. "Our defense has forced numerous turnovers and it’s allowed us to break away in some close games at the end." The Eagles outscored East Texas Baptist 51-30 Saturday at Mabee Gym in the second half to pull away for the victory that secured the Eagles’ spot in the ASC Tournament. Travis Acord, a junior forward from Clarksville, led the Eagles with 23 points, Brent Gibbs added 14 and Patrick Prater and Donald Williams each chipped in 10. In all, nine of the 11 Eagles on the roster scored against ETBU, something that has become common for this year’s team. Acord and Prater lead the Eagles in scoring, averaging 13 and 12 points, respectively. Seven other players are averaging between six and 10 points. "We’re very balanced and we’re very unselfish and that’s a good combination to have," Johnson said. "This may be one of the best teams I’ve had as far as assists-per-game because they are so unselfish. They don’t care about how many points they have; they just want to win." The Eagles played McMurry close in their only other meeting this year, losing 77-72 in Abilene. McMurry, which is ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Division III South Region, did not lose a conference game all season and has dropped only one game all year. "We had a one point lead with three minutes to play at their place, so we know we can play with them," Johnson said. "I think our kids have confidence and they know if we go down there and play well, we can beat them." McMurry has the No. 1 scoring offense in the conference, averaging 99.9 points per game. Ozarks is third at 79.2. "We can’t let McMurry get a lot of easy baskets," Johnson said. "We’ve got to make them earn everything. They are so explosive that they can turn a one or two-point game into an 18-point game in no time."