Monday, February 23, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Old mates lead Tigers to championship

Leader sports editor

The Ouachita Baptist men’s basketball team has gone from worst to first, and a pair of Jacksonville graduates are a big reason for it.

The Tigers just clinched the Great American Conference regular-season championship with Thursday’s 78-71 victory over Southeastern Oklahoma, and junior Tirrell Brown and sophomore Justin McCleary played a key role in that 14-3 record.

Neither Brown nor McCleary expected to be in Arkadelphia when they graduated from JHS. Brown signed with coach Corliss Williamson at the University of Central Arkansas in 2012. UCA had recently moved up to NCAA Division I and Williamson had just been hired to help bring the basketball program up to that level.

Things didn’t work out for Williamson or Brown.

In 2013, McCleary led the Red Devils to a state championship and had an offer from Williamson and UCA. An honor student in high school, he also drew interest from high-academic institutions like Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, but he chose to go the junior college route in hopes of landing a scholarship to a major program in two years.

That also didn’t work out. McCleary would only describe what happened at Holmes College in Jackson, Miss., as “dishonesty”, and decided to leave after one year.

McCleary had been offered by OBU coach Dennis Nutt out of high school, and Nutt still wanted him a year later.

“I was actually getting ready to go to Florida A&M, but then their coach ended up getting fired,” said McCleary. “So then I thought I would go on back to junior college. But then a bunch of bad stuff happened there with the coaches. When coach Nutt told me that his offer was still on the table, I said I wasn’t going to wait, and went ahead and accepted it.”

Brown played one year for Williamson and the team was bad. Williamson resigned to take a job with his old NBA team, the Sacramento Kings, and former Little Rock Central high-school coach Clarence Finley took over the Bears’ program on an interim basis. The program continued to suffer from a lack of structure, something that Brown admits to taking advantage of, along with most of the other players. The team was slapped with sanctions including a postseason ban for falling below academic progress rate (APR) standards set by the NCAA.

When new coach Russ Pennell was hired, he dismissed all but one player from the team, including Brown, and brought in what he called “more academic-minded players”, in hopes of building up a higher APR rate in the long run.

When McCleary heard about what was happening at UCA, he called his old high-school teammate and asked him to consider becoming a Tiger. Nutt, of course, was interested in getting a DI transfer. He set some stricter guidelines for Brown and the old Red Devil duo has taken the Great American Conference by storm.

Brown had some other Division I options after being dismissed by Pennell, but liked his visit to OBU and said it was an easy choice. And even though he accepted a scholarship after McCleary, he reported to Arkadelphia before his old high school teammate did.

“It’s a slower pace down here and it’s a totally different experience,” said Brown of Arkadelphia. “But I like the teammates and the program a lot more. There’s a lot more structure. I’ve put more work into it. Plus we’re winning. So it’s good.”

McCleary was a point guard in high school and junior college, but was moved to the two by Nutt, and it’s paid off.

The Tigers lead the league in several statistical categories, including scoring offense, scoring defense and obviously, scoring margin. They average 78.2 points per game while giving up 67.8. They lead the league in steals, turnover margin and are second in assist to turnover ratio.

Most importantly, OBU is at the top of the standings. They are 14-3 in conference play and 18-4 overall. That’s a major turnaround from last year’s last-place 6-14 conference mark, 9-17 overall.

Brown and McCleary are both in the top-25 in the conference in scoring. Brown is third in scoring at 18.1 points per game and sixth in rebounding at 7.6. McCleary is 25th in scoring, averaging 11.5 points per game and is the only Tiger to have started every game this year.
Brown leads the league in overall shooting percentage, knocking down 64.9 percent of his shots, and McCleary leads the league in 3-point shooting, hitting 46.3 of his long-range jumpers.

The Tigers have two games left and both would be great opportunities for hometown fans to see the old Red Devils in action. They host archrival Henderson State on Thursday. HSU is literally across the street from OBU. A walking bridge over 10th street connect the two campuses. It’s almost always standing room only when the two teams meet and anything could happen. Though the Reddies are just 10-13 and near the bottom of the conference standings, they beat OBU 71-67 in the first meeting.

The final game of the regular season is next Saturday at Harding University in Searcy, the closest school in the GAC to central Arkansas. HU has a nationally reknowned basketball atmosphere at Rhodes Fieldhouse, which has been featured on ESPN and has made several lists as one of the toughest places in the country for visiting teams.