Appalachian State seemed on the verge of a major men’s college basketball upset for most of Thursday night at the Holmes Convocation Center, but the struggling Mountaineers couldn’t close the deal in a demoralizing 71-67 Sun Belt Conference loss to UT-Arlington.
Missed free throws, empty offensive possessions and turnovers in the final minutes sent Appalachian (2-12 overall, 0-3 in conference) to its 12th loss in its past 13 games, negating what could have been a confidence-boosting victory over the Sun Belt’s hottest team.
“When you give up 14 offensive rebounds, don’t hit your free throws (7-of-16) and make 20 turnovers, you aren’t going to win many games,” ASU coach Jim Fox said. Lack of confidence “has kind of been our MO the whole year. It weighs on you mentally. We had a chance to get over the hump and just didn’t do it.”
The Mountaineers shot 54.8% from the field in the first half behind the offensive force of senior guard Frank Eaves, who scored 17 of his game-high 21 points as ASU built an 11-point lead.
It was still App State’s advantage at 44-35 as the teams departed for the locker rooms at the intermission.
But UTA (12-2, 3-0) battled back in the second half to take its first lead at 61-60 on Nathan Hawkins’ lay-in with 5:02 remaining. Ronshad Shabazz knotted the game, 62-62, with his clutch jumper from just inside the top of the circle at the 4:25 mark.
There were plenty of opportunities for the Mountaineers to win from there, but three missed free throws by Shabazz and a pair of failed three-point efforts allowed the Mavericks to pull ahead by five points, 67-62, on Erick Neal’s trey and his 2-of-4 effort from the free-throw line.
Jake Babic kept App State hopes alive with his three-pointer with 27 seconds left to cut UTA’s lead to 67-65, but four free throws from Drew Charles and Kaelon Wilson in between a lay-up from ASU’s Griffin Kinney finished off the Mavericks’ win.
It was a tough game, I thought App State outplayed us,” UTA coach Scott Cross said. “It is a credit to our guys that they figured out a way to win this game.”
Appalachian’s solid defense limited the Mavericks’ star forward Kevin Hervey to 2-of-13 shooting from the field, nine points and 10 rebounds. Hervey entered the game averaging 18 points per game.
UT-Arlington shot only 35.9% for the game and the nation’s best rebounding team only edged ASU by a 46-43 count on the boards.
But that wasn’t enough to give the Mountaineers a much needed win.
“There were thing we could have controlled,” said Eaves. “You can’t do that against a team as talented as they are and expect to win. We just didn’t close out the game.”
Michael Obacha, who teamed with Babic, Emarius Logan and Matt O’Boyle to score a combined 25 points off the bench, with 12 rebounds, five assists and a blocked shot, was frustrated with how Appalachian lost the game.
“We kind of beat ourselves, we let them back in the game,” said Obacha. “Every team can be beaten. We had this game, we threw this game away.”
Fox wasn’t looking for silver linings in the clouds hanging over the program afterwards.
“What we’re trying to build here is not a pat on the back for good efforts,” said Fox. “They have to learn how to win.
The Mountaineers will get another chance on Saturday when they host Texas State (7-4, 1-1) at 3:30 p.m.
In women’s basketball action, UT-Arlington (7-6, 2-1) stormed past Appalachian (4-8, 1-2) 76-45.
Center Rebekah VanDijk had a game-high 18 points and nine rebounds on a night where the Lady Mavericks had four players score in double figures.
ASU had three players score six points each, Ashley Bassett-Smith, Katelyn Doub and Liz Norregaard as the Lady Mountaineers shot just 26.4% from the field and were beaten 41-30 on the boards.
App State’s women will also be at home against Texas State on Saturday, with the action beginning at 1 p.m.