Top-Seeded Lions Take Workman-Like Approach Into Tournament

FORT SMITH, Ark. – UAFS men’s basketball coach Josh Newman has installed a blue-collar work ethic in this Lions, preaching a simple "take care of business" approach during the last few weeks of the season.

His philosophy hasn’t changed with the start of the postseason.

UAFS finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak to capture its second consecutive outright Heartland Conference title and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament for the second season in a row.

"We’ve really tried to focus on us and not worry about what other teams are doing," Newman said. "If we take care of our business, everything will fall into place. We know that if we want to play in the NCAA tournament a conference tournament championship does that."

UAFS will host the four-team conference tournament on Friday and Saturday at the Stubblefield Center.

The No. 1 seed Lions will play the No. 4 seed University of Texas of the Permian Basin Falcons at 5:30 p.m., and the No. 2 seed Texas A&M International Dustdevils will play the No. 3 seed St. Mary’s Rattlers at 7:30 p.m. The championship game will be at 4 p.m. on Saturday with the champion earning an automatic bid to next week’s NCAA Division II South Central Region Tournament.

Admission will be $6 for adults and $4 for non-UAFS students. A two-day tournament pass will be available for $10. UAFS students, faculty and staff will be admitted free with a current university ID.

Live statistics and webcast for all games will be available by visiting Fan Central on the UAFS athletics website (www.uafortsmithlions.com). Additional tournament information will be available at Tournament Central on the Heartland Conference website (www.heartlandsports.org).

It will be the second season in a row for UAFS to host the conference tournament. Newman said playing at the Stubblefield Center has many advantages, particularly the opportunity to play in front of a home crowd.

A raucous crowd of more than 1,300 fans witnessed the Lions clinch the regular-season conference title last week with a dramatic 106-102 overtime win against the Rogers State Hillcats.

"I think it’s definitely an advantage not to travel and to be able to play in front of your home crowd. Our crowds have been outstanding, and we will need their energy and support," Newman said. "They’ve truly created a home-court advantage."

UAFS (21-5), which was the preseason favorite to win the conference, fought back from an early 0-2 start in conference play to win the league title by one game over Texas A&M International (20-8). St. Mary’s (19-7) finished two games behind UAFS, and UTPB finished four games behind UAFS.

It will be the third season in a row for UAFS to compete in the conference tournament. The Lions advanced to the conference title game the past two seasons, finishing runner-up each time to St. Mary’s.

Newman, who was named Coach of the Year, said this tournament field may be the toughest yet.

St. Mary’s is ranked No. 5 in the latest NCAA Division II South Central Region rankings, while UAFS is ranked No. 6 and Texas A&M International is ranked No. 9. UAFS is the only conference team garnering national attention, receiving four votes in the latest NABC/Division II Top 25.

"You have three teams regionally ranked," Newman said. "Then, you have a UTPB team that is extremely talented and dangerous."

A strong performance in the conference tournament is important. The tournament champions from the Heartland Conference, the Lone Star Conference and the Rocky Mountain Conference each earn an automatic bid to the eight-team region tournament. The remaining five at-large bids are awarded based in most part to a team’s regional ranking.

It will be the second encounter of the season between UAFS and UTPB. The Lions beat the Falcons 83-80 on Jan. 30 at the Falcon Dome in Odessa. It will be the 11th meeting between the two teams in the all-time series, which UAFS leads 8-2.

Still, Newman said UTPB is a dangerous opening-round opponent. Oddly enough, the Falcons have had much more success on the road this season than at home, posting a 10-2 record away from the Falcon Dome.

UTPB, which finished 10-8 in conference play, averages 82.9 points per game with five players averaging double-figures in scoring – senior forward Dwayne Soders (16), junior guard Thomas Feeney (15.1), senior guard Anthony Dees (12.9), senior guard Phadarius Taylor (12.7) and junior guard Madison Turner (11.7).

The Falcons allow 77.4 points per game and force 13.5 turnovers per game. Feeney leads the team with 33 steals, while junior forward Andre Rieder leads the team with 26 blocked shots.

UTPB out-rebounds its opponents by more than eight rebounds (41.6-33.4). Soders and senior forward Keith Martin lead the team with 9.1 and 7.3 rebounds per game, respectively.

"They are a very talented team with the ability to beat anyone on any given night," Newman said. "They actually are a better road team than home team, so we are going to have to play as well as we have played all year to advance."

UAFS, which finished 14-4 in conference play, averages 85.2 points per game with three players averaging double-figures in scoring – senior guard Jake Toupal (14.5), freshman guard Seth Youngblood (14.5) and sophomore forward Kenny Martin (10.2).

Toupal was named First Team All-Conference and Player of the Year, while Youngblood was named Second Team All-Conference and Freshman of the Year.

The Lions allow 74.8 points per game and force 12.2 turnovers per game. Toupal leads the team with 20 steals, and Martin leads the team with 44 blocked shots. UAFS out-rebounds its opponents by more than seven rebounds per game (40.5-33.2). Martin and junior forward Miha Glavas lead the team with 7.3 and 6.4 rebounds per game, respectively.