|Updated: 3/07/2012 8:22 am
||Published: 3/06/2012 3:02 pm
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - Taylor Ford had Arkansas-Little Rock's NCAA tournament hopes in her hands near the end of overtime.
The UALR guard delivered on those hopes on Tuesday, connecting on a layup with 11 seconds remaining to lift the Trojans to a 71-70 win over Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt Conference championship game.
The win clinches the third straight NCAA berth for UALR (20-12), which also won the Sun Belt tournament last year before losing to Green Bay in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The school will host a regional at the Stephens Center in Little Rock.
The Trojans opened the season 4-9, including a loss to defending national champion Texas A&M, but they have now won seven in a row and 13 of 15.
"There's several times that we could have laid down a little bit after losing the lead and getting behind," UALR coach Joe Foley said. "Then we had to come back and hit the shot to put it into overtime and then Taylor Ford does what she did, so I really respect these girls.
"Of any team I've coached, they've probably made the biggest turnaround during the season."
Tuesday's win didn't come without its fair share of drama for the Trojans, who saw a 22-point lead in the first half evaporate quickly in the second half.
UALR trailed 63-61 near the end of regulation before Taylor Gault, who had 20 points, connected on a jumper with 8.7 seconds remaining to tie the game and send it to overtime.
The Trojans then trailed 70-67 late in overtime, but Ford hit a pair of free throws to close the gap for UALR to 70-69.
After the Blue Raiders missed on the other end, Ford then took the ball on the right before driving left into the lane and lifting up the game-winning basket. She finished with 13 points, none bigger than the last.
"Coach Foley said during the timeout that if they (weren't) guarding me, then to go ahead and penetrate," Ford said. "When it happened, I was trying to get it to Marian (Kursh), but she wasn't open, so I just went in and took it."
Icellyn Elie scored a career-high 29 points to lead the Blue Raiders (26-6), who have reached the NCAAs in each of the last three seasons. Kortni Jones added 18 points and Ebony Rowe had 12.
Middle Tennessee lost in the first round of the Sun Belt tournament last season, just days after the stabbing death of teammate Tina Stewart. The school went on to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed to Georgia.
The Blue Raiders have reached the NCAAs in three straight seasons, and they have a nonconference win over Southeastern Conference regular-season champion Kentucky on this season's resume.
"I think we're in great shape," Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell said. "I'm not on the committee, but I think you've got some very intelligent basketball people there. We've done what we're supposed to do. We play one of the toughest schedules in the country."
Middle Tennessee was undefeated this season in the Sun Belt during the regular season, including a 59-51 win over UALR on Feb. 12.
Marian Kursh only played 14 minutes in that game for the Trojans, finishing with only 1 point and 4 rebounds. The senior had much more of an impact on Tuesday, grabbing 5 early rebounds as UALR opened on an 18-2 run, and she finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds.
The Blue Raiders, in the championship game for the ninth time in their 12 seasons in the league, closed out the first half on a 14-5 run to cut UALR's halftime lead to 44-31.
That stretch included four of Middle Tennessee's five 3-pointers in the half, with Jones hitting a pair and Elie another.
The Blue Raiders started the second half in much the same fashion, opening on a 15-2 run to tie the game at 46 after a pair of free throw by Elie. They took their first lead since opening the game 2-0 when Elie then scored inside to put Middle Tennessee up 48-47.
The two teams then exchanged the lead eight times before Ford tied the game at 61-61 for UALR with a three-point play. That was with 5:01 remaining in the game, after which neither team scored until Jones' free throws with 8.7 seconds left put the Blue Raiders up 63-61.
Jones was fouled on a 3-point attempt on the play, but she missed the second of three free throw attempts, keeping the lead at two.
"I was upset with myself for missing one, but I put us up two," Jones said. "I really did feel like we had it won. I thought I was going to make all three free throws, but I guess that happened."
Gault then took a pass from Ford on the other end for UALR, calmly connecting on a jumper from the free throw line to tie the game and send it to overtime.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)