UAPB revels in first NCAA tournament bid

When Allen Smith was growing up, he used to go watch basketball

at his local college – but the less said about those Arkansas-Pine

Bluff teams, the better.

“I used to go to sleep at the games, actually. I was a little

kid,” Smith said. “They were getting blown out by 80 points and

all that. It was rough.”

Now, Smith is preparing to play for UAPB in the NCAA

tournament.

The Golden Lions will take on Winthrop in the tournament’s first

game Tuesday night, with the winner advancing to play top-seeded

Duke. UAPB earned the program’s first NCAA bid by winning the

Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, and the players were

decked out in championship hats and shirts Sunday while watching

the selection show in a cramped lounge near the school’s football

field.

“I’ve always wanted to play Duke, but I wanted to play Duke at

Duke, just to see how the atmosphere was. I’ll take it how I can

get it,” said Smith, a 5-foot-10 junior. “It’s going to be great,

we’ve just got to get past this play-in game first. That’s the

first thing on the agenda – beat Winthrop.”

No matter what happens Tuesday, UAPB has traveled quite a road

to reach this point. As recently as 2003-04, the Golden Lions went

1-26. This season, they didn’t play a home game until mid-January

and started 0-11.

In the SWAC, however, the Golden Lions were contenders. They

earned the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, beat

fifth-seeded Texas Southern in the title game and enter the NCAA

tournament with a 17-15 record.

“This is as big as it gets for our community, our alumni and

our students,” athletic director Skip Perkins said. “I’m still a

little numb right now. The turnaround is remarkable. It wasn’t even

over 10 years ago we were barely winning one or two games at

all.”

UAPB improved from those depths, losing in the SWAC tournament

title game in 2006 under coach Van Holt. George Ivory took over as

coach before the 2008-09 season.

For Perkins, this tournament bid is a bit of vindication after

the grueling schedule the school set up for the team. The Golden

Lions opened the season with 14 consecutive games away from home,

earning an estimated $800,000 for their trouble. At the time,

Perkins insisted the schedule wasn’t all about money, saying Ivory

wanted to test his team before conference play.

So UAPB played – and lost to – teams like Georgia Tech, Missouri

and Kansas State.

“It helped make us a better team. It made us more physical,”

guard Terrance Calvin said. “I think we were the most physical

team in our conference.”

There were some groans Sunday after Kansas State was matched up

with North Texas; the UAPB players apparently wanted a rematch.

Instead, the Golden Lions will have to win Tuesday night in Dayton,

Ohio, just to make it to the round of 64.

“I thought we were going to get an automatic bid into it

without a play-in game, but we’ve got to go through Winthrop to get

to Duke,” Calvin said. “We’ve just got to do what we’ve got to

do.”

Calvin was still wearing part of the net from Saturday night in

his hat, a sign the players and coaches were savoring every moment

of their big weekend.

“It’s been kind of hectic. You know, a lot of phone calls, text

messages, interviews,” Ivory said. “We love it.”