The Most Dominant Athlete in Arkansas College Sports

Courtesy Jim Hilton

I don’t usually repost press release copy from universities, but I’m making an exception today. Because it’s a shame not more people know about Edina Begic, the UALR volleyball star who likely just pulled off this year’s single most dominant individual season in all Arkansas college team sports. You’ll read about some of all the amazing things she achieved below, but what I find most stupendous is the fact that the Bosnian she received a Sun Belt Conference Player of the Week award seven times this fall – including one historic stretch of five such honors in a row.

The Beginator.

The Begicinator.

After another record-breaking year that saw her finish third in the nation with 5.11 kills per set, Begic was this week named to the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association All-Region Team for the Southwest Region. Begic is UALR’s first volleyball player to achieve this honor.

The junior outside hitter, who is now eligible to be named an All-American, topped the Sun Belt Conference in kills per set and points per set and was named its Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. She was also third in the country with 5.83 points per set. Begic is the first player in conference history to win Freshman of the Year followed with a pair of Offensive Player of the Year awards. She is only the the third Trojan to win Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player, joining Barbara Gomez (1997) and Tanja Radovic (2000).

Behind Begic’s offensive prowess, the Trojans took the No. 2 seed into last month’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament and held a 12-6 record in Sun Belt play along with an 8-5 mark in non-conference games. Begic set multiple school records this season, shattering the record for kills in a match with 36 kills in only four sets against Arkansas State on Oct. 2. In that match she had 16 kills in the fourth set alone and hit .517 for the match.

Against Georgia State on Nov. 8, Begic broke the school record for kills in a season and currently ended the campaign with 634 kills.

Milanovic has put up impressive numbers herself this season. She was the first Trojan to break the 30+ kills in a match barrier, matching the- then school record for kills in a match (34) against Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Sept. 7. She is second on the team with nine double-doubles for the season, including her first match in a Trojan uniform against Southeast Missouri State on Aug. 31 (22 digs, 17 kills). Besides being second in kills per set in the SBC, Milanovic sits ninth in both aces (0.24 per set) and hitting percentage (.282).

Begic is the third player to win Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year for UALR, joining Barbara Gomez (1997) and Tanja Radovic (2000). A Trojan has been selected All-Conference 35 times. Finally, Begic broke the school record for kills per set in a match on Oct. 25 against Troy, tallying 28 kills in only three sets (9.33 kills per set).

All-America teams will be announced on Dec. 18.

While Begic may end up being the first UALR All-American volleyball player, there’s a chance the second is already playing by her side. Sophomore Sonia Milanovic paired with Begic to make up the nation’s top spiking duo. She was the first Trojan to break the 30+ kills in a match barrier, matching the- then school record for kills in a match (34) against Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Sept. 7. She finished second in kills per set in the Sun Belt with 3.99 kills per set. That’s 41st in the nation.

Congrats, Edina and Sonia. I hope you lead UALR to a season for the ages in 2014.

[Check out photographer Jim Hilton's other superb sports photographs here]

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Jeremy Evans on Scottie Pippen, Bobby Petrino and Competing Against Streetballers in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest

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Evans is the second Arkansan to win an NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He’s also the second Ashley County native to compete in one.

In January, I interviewed 2012 NBA Slam Dunk champion Jeremy Evans for SLAM magazine. We discussed the redundancy that’s come to pervade the dunk contest and possible remedies. I proposed allowing the general public into the contest, and Evans welcomed the challenge of competing against pro streetball dunkers. Tonight, Evans will defend his title against a field of NBAers including Gerald Green and James “Flight” White, who has promised to unveil dunks never before seen by the public.

Evans, a Crossett, Ark. native, and I also touched on other subjects in the interview.  Here are some highlights:

1. Evans isn’t the first “Arkansan” to win the NBA’s slam dunk contest. Fred Jones, who grew up in Malvern and moved to Oregon in middle school, won the 2004 contest.

2. Ashley County in southeast Arkansas has about 22,000 people but has produced two NBA players besides Evans. The first was Myron Jackson, a 6-3 guard who played for UALR.  Jackson, a Hamburg native, played eight games with the Dallas Mavericks in 1986-87. The following season another Hamburg native, Scottie Pippen, made his NBA debut.

Evans said Pippen inspired him as a young player. Hamburg is only 15 miles from Crossett, and as a teen Evans believed “if he can make it, I can make it.” Evans twice met Pippen – at a basketball game in Hamburg and at Wal-Mart in Crossett.  In Wal-Mart, Evans (who is an introvert) said his mom took him over to introduce him to Pippen. “He signed my shoes and that’s about it,” he said with a chuckle.

Pippen, by the way, participated in the 1990 NBA slam dunk contest, where he threw down a free-throw line dunk (Evans says he’s completed one of these only once – during a practice in high school).

3, Evans loves to draw. “I do everything – airbrush, portrait, oil painting, colored pencils, landscapes – just about anything you can imagine.”  After his playing days end, he wants to open his own studio.

As far as he knows, he is one of the only NBA players who seriously draws. He recalls one erstwhile Oklahoma City Thunder player had a similar interest, and ultimately opened a studio in Oklahoma (he’s forgotten the player’s name).

My sportswriter friend David Harten attended Western Kentucky University with Evans in the late 2000s and told me Evans drew a portrait of CBS announcer Mike Gminski before a 2009 NCAA Tournament game. “Someone came up to me and asked me to do it,” recalled Evans, who enjoys portrait drawings the most. “I did it just because they asked me to.”

Evans’ favorite type of art is portraiture. He likes the challenge of trying to get a person’s face exactly right.

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If Mike Gminski one day needs to be portrayed in a raucous comedy titled “Announcerman,” I know exactly who should play him.

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If Derek Fisher had played for the Razorbacks

This was closer to happening than you think. Illustration by Ferris Williams

There aren’t many blank spots on longtime NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President. On every big stage the Little Rock native has played, he has left his mark.

Yet there’s the stage he never played on.

It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher has been a part of in his 16-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.

The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.

Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.

It could have been much, much different.

What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.

See the rest of the story at Sync magazine.

PS – This concludes what has apparently become my blog’s  Of(Fish)al Derek Fisher Week.


UALR basketball star Will Neighbour On the Mend

UALR’s top player discusses his recovery from shoulder surgery. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

In a perfect world, UALR’s leading returning scorer from last season would near home right now, representing his native Great Britain.

Instead, he’s in his second home – Little Rock – trying to finish off the last few weeks of rehab from an April surgery to repair a a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a torn left bicep. Neighbour suffered the injury on December 31, but still produced an All-Sun Belt second-team season, averaging 10.5 points per game on 41.3% three-point shooting.

For the last few years, his goal had been to show off that perimeter stroke in front of family and friends in this summer’s London Olympics. Priority shifted in the spring, though, when he weighed the risks and rewards of trying out for the British national team (thus postponing his surgery) and getting surgery out of the way to come back strong for the start of the 2012-13 season.

He chose the latter, and doesn’t seem to regret the decision much. The rehab “is coming along real well,” he told me on Tuesday during an interview for an upcoming SYNC and KUAR FM 89.1 story.

Here’s more on his progress:

I’m working out with the team, but I can’t do any of the contact stuff. I can do the shooting drills, dribbling drills and I’m working out every day with my two trainers – coach [John] Barron, a fantastic weight coach and Michael Switlik. He’s doing amazing too. We’re doing rehab everyday and just trying to get full range of motion back and just get my shoulder strong and ready for the season.”

The trainers estimate he won’t be ready for contact drills and scrimmaging for another two months, he added.


Derek Fisher’s spring more than a Little Rocky

In Oklahoma City, greybeard Derek Fisher helped the Thunder wrest two games away from the favored Spurs.

For an NBA player, dry patches don’t come much more Saharan than this.

Twenty-two times over the course of the three biggest games of his season, Derek Fisher tried to put the ball into the basket. Eighteen times he failed. You’d get better percentages from Shaq picking up wood and trying to hit against Cliff Lee.

Even before last week, the Little Rock native was having a tough go of it. Indeed, this has been one of his most difficult seasons since coming out of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock nearly 16 years ago. He spent half of 2011 jetting around the nation, carrying out duties as the president of the National Basketball Players Association in the midst of a lockout. He spent hundreds of hours thumbing through papers and negotiating in boardrooms while younger players stayed sharp playing pickup games. In this way, Fisher sacrificed on-court maintenance for off-court progress, and it showed by the time the season finally started in December: the 6-1 point guard stumbled out of the blocks, shooting well below his career 40% field goal average while having trouble staying in front of younger, quicker opponents.

The man who had helped the Lakers win five NBA championships, who for 13 seasons served as a calming liaison between the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, was suddenly expendable.

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“I think it would be good for both of us.” – Megan Herbert on possibility of UCA-UALR basketball

 The recent football successes of UA and ASU have triggered new rounds of debate whether those teams should play against each other. Still, despite recent strides made by the ASU program, it’s a hypothetical clash unlikely to happen any time soon.
 Following is another possible matchup that’s a lot closer to reality, and could be just as interesting for its colleges’ fans:

  No two women have meant more to basketball in central Arkansas in the last few years than Chastity Reed and Megan Herbert. Reed, who graduated last year, became UALR’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder while leading the Trojans to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Herbert, a junior, could make a similar splash in UCA’s record books. The Southland Conference Player of the Year is a conference tournament title away from helping UCA crash its first March Madness.
The women’s legacies may end up looking similar on paper, but the players have hardly been more different on the court. Reed, a wing player, dazzled crowds with superior athleticism, a quick crossover and a devastating mid-range game. Herbert is just as skilled but has a much more subtle game, filled with deft high-low passing, flip shots and an almost Tim Duncanesque economy of movement.
Their personalities seem near opposites as well. Always intense, Reed jawed much of the game, as flamboyant as her New Orleans roots. Herbert’s more measured, quick to smile but slow to let her competitiveness boil over in front of fans.  Both women have made their programs extremely proud.
  It’s a shame, though, they never played each other.
The women of UALR and UCA already compete in soccer and volleyball. They should compete in basketball, too.  Herbert agrees: “They have a great program and we’re trying to get our  program where we’re highly recognized in the state, too. I think it would be good for both of us.”
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Cold is Calling: Sonny Weems, Patrick Beverley & Courtney Fortson thrive away from NBA

It seems like only yesterday the NBA’s powers-that-be were on the verge of shutting down their entire 2011-12 season.

Nearly five months into a labor standoff that began in June, NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter had their guns drawn, staring each other down across a saloon full of lawyers and ESPN reporters.

No one, it seemed, dared blink.

A cold wind swept in under the swinging door, bringing tumbleweed and union decertification papers with it. The movie’s action paused a beat as Stern looked to side, into the camera, and uttered in his most ominous tone: “We are about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA.”

That mid-November moment, however, proved the worst of it. From there on out, the two sides warmed to each other. They will soon begin a shortened 66-game regular season schedule, saving Christmas Day games and sleighfuls of cash for owners, players and team staff alike. On Dec. 9, Arkansas’ usual suspects in the world of pro basketball will start the grind of training camp: Derek Fisher in L.A., Joe Johnson in Atlanta, Ronnie Brewer in Chicago and James Anderson in San Antonio.

But while some of the state’s bigger names have been waiting for the NBA lockout to thaw, other NBA hopefuls with Arkansas connections are already deep into their regular seasons. Indeed, as Stern was warning the world of nuclear winter, two former Razorbacks were already enduring all the winter they could handle…

“It’s a blizzard over here in Russia!!!,” Sonny Weems tweeted on November 20. “S*** is crazy.” Weems, a fourth-year pro from West Memphis, would have been playing for the Toronto Raptors were it not for the lockout. But, when it looked like he could lose out on an entire season, he signed with the same Lithuania team with which fellow West Memphian Marcus Brown ended his stellar career.

With Zalgiris Kaunus, Weems is playing in three separate leagues but he’s been at his best in the top one, the Euroleague. Weems

Baltic state residency can do a shot good.

was averaging 17.9 points while shooting 47.8% on three-pointers through his first seven Euroleague games. He also averaged 5.3 rebounds, one assist and 1.4 steals.

“Don’t make any sense how cold it is out here!!!,” Weems again tweeted on Dec. 3. That may be true, Sonny, but given your outstanding improvement in Arkansas and the NBA, it does make sense how hot your shooting is over there.

Guard Patrick Beverley grew up in Chicago before starring for a couple seasons as a Razorback. He also spent his first season as a pro in the Ukraine. So, you would think the man could handle his subzero temps. Well, it turns out that time spent in Greece (in 2009-10) and Miami (Beverley played summer ball with the Heat in 2010) may have spoiled him somewhat before he returned to Europe’s less balmy climes in early 2011.
“Cold as f**k in Russia!!!!!,” Beverley tweeted on Nov. 25, with a photo of a landscape that makes the moon’s surface look as inviting as Cozumel.

Beverley led Spartak St. Petersburg in Russia’s top league with 15.8 points on 53% field goal shooting through five games. He also averaged 4.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.2 LOLs a season on his twitpic stream. Seriously, check @patbev21 out. P-Bev’s pretty hilarious, whether expounding on how he blew 5K playing cards or ragging on a millionaire teammate for rolling with rinky-dink cellphones.

What’s not as funny for Arkansas fans is how Courtney Fortson, who was talented enough to become an SEC player of the year, never got it together in his two troubled seasons on the Hill.Since leaving Arkansas in spring 2010, Fortson has found little success in the pros. He briefly considered playing in Israel, and last spring averaged 1.5 points and .7 assists with the Reno Bighorns of the National Basketball Development League.

Recently, though, Fortson has received a second chance with the NBDL, and this time seems to be taking full advantage.
He averaged 15.5 points, including 58% on three-pointers, through his first six games with the Los Angeles D-Fenders. The 5-10 guard has chipped in 4.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.5 steals and has even limited turnovers, a big problem at Arkansas, to 1.67 a game.
Like Weems and Beverley, this former Hog is flourishing in a quality league outside of the NBA. And, just like the other two, Fortson isn’t digging on cold, desolate places. On Nov. 24, the day before his season debut, he tweeted: “Being in north dakota is like sitting in a closet.”

 To avoid getting totally Hog-centric on you, let’s glance at the pro careers of some other pro ballers from the state of Arkansas:
  1. Solomon Bozeman (UALR) – After a summer chipping away at his master’s degree in Little Rock, the Sun Belt Player of the Year is staying in the Sun Belt to try his hand at a pro career.  In early November, the Austin Toros drafted Bozeman, a Magnolia, Ark. native, in the fifth round. Through his first three games, he averaged four points, one rebound and 2.3 assists while teaming with former Razorback Stefan Welsh.

  2. Shane Edwards(UALR) – Bozeman would do well to find the same level of NBDL success as Edwards, who averaged 16.7 points and 6.8 rebounds over 45 games for the New Mexico Thunderbirds last season. But despite playing in NBA summer leagues and tryouts for two consecutive summers, Edwards hasn’t quite been able to break into the domestic big time. So, this fall, he’s taken his act to Italy’s second-best league, where he undoubtedly makes many times over the $15,000-$25,000 he was annually banking in the NBDL.

    In his first nine games with Tezenis Verona, Edwards averaged 9 points on 52% shooting from the field and 87% from the free throw line. He led his team with 4.9 rebounds a game, along with 3.2 turnovers and 1.7 steals. Tezenis started the season 3-6.

   As an interesting aside, Von Wafer, the top Italian league’s leading scorer through early December, also has Arkansas connections. The north Lousiana native first gained national attention playing with the AAU Arkansas Wings summer league team before his high school senior year in 2002-2003.

3. Kim Adams (ASU) – I met Adams, a 2000 Little Rock Fair High School graduate, a few years ago at the Little Rock’s Dunbar Recreation Center summer league. The 6-8 center seemed like a nice enough guy, and mentioned he had been playing in Spain. Well, it looks like he’s still working his craft there, and doing quite well. He’s averaging about 7.5 points and rebounds a game while shooting 63% on field goals, according to Eurobasket.

         The above post is an expanded version of a piece originally published in Sync magazine.

Do enough fans want a UCA-ASU-UAPB-UALR basketball event to make it happen?

There has never been a better time for this to happen.

In December 2009, a Virgina sports radio talk show host reminded his state’s governor of a popular in-state basketball competition from decades ago. Basketball fans in Virginia had told the host they wanted to see that tournament return, and he passed their message on to Governor Bob McDonnell.

The message, evidentally, was well received.

In August 2011, the governor announced the creation of a December doubleheader between four in-state Division I basketball programs. Not only will the event, scheduled for two years, benefit sports fans in that state, but it will help a good cause. Proceeds go to Virginia’s Food Banks, which are especially in need around Christmas.

Virginians saw an opportunity to capitalize on the recent NCAA Tournament successes of some of their D1 programs, and help the hungry while at it, and they struck.
So should Arkansans.
Never before has Arkansas had a better opportunity to form an event between four Division I basketball programs. For many years, Arkansas’ only four D1 programs included its flagship university – UA-Fayetteville. Forget the Razorbacks scheduling in-state competition, however. That policy’s origins, and arguments for and against, have already gotten plenty of cyber-ink. No reason to spill more here, as this post focuses on the other programs]
But when the University of Central Arkansas became a full-fledged Division 1 member in 2010, UA-Fayetteville was no longer a necessary participant in a theoretical competition between the state’s top programs. And it’s UCA’s athletic director, Brad Teague, who strongly advocates scheduling such a competition: “I think it’s something certainly all the [local] basketball coaches talk about and think would be good for the state to do.”

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Razorback assistants discuss possibility of Hogs playing with pros and preps in a summer fundraiser

At the Little Rock Razorback club meeting, I was able to ask Razorbacks assistant coaches Matt Zimmerman and T.J. Cleveland about the idea I floated in this week’s Sync column for an NCAA-sanctioned summer basketball event involving high school, college and pro players. There is currently no summer league (or summer tournament) in which current college players are allowed to play, although Scotty Thurman said that Little Rock’s Dunbar Recreational Center used to have such a league.

My essential point in the piece was that the fame of college players, especially Razorbacks (even Razorback recruits) can be leveraged for a good cause: a fundraiser game.

Central Arkansas doesn’t have enough NBA players living in the area to support a multi-month league with the talent of a Bluff City Classic. Instead, when it comes to drumming up public interest, focus should be given to the players at elite Division I colleges and the high school players likely to be joining them. If you made an effort to see David Rivers (Nebraska), A.J. Walton (Baylor), or Jamal Jones (Ole Miss) star at local high schools, you likely still want to see them play. Especially if they take the court with some of the area’s best current prep players — guys like Archie Goodwin (Kentucky, Arkansas recruit), I.J. Ready (Nebraska signee) and Bobby Portis and Dederick Lee (Razorbacks signees).

By charging admission to a gym the size of North Little Rock High or Hall High, thousands of dollars could be raised for something like obesity prevention or diabetes awareness. Moreover, a non-profit association affiliated with those causes could give halftime speeches and pass out literature along with game tickets. Finally, the players responsible for drawing such large crowds would have satisfaction in knowing they’re essentially volunteering their time and abilities to help others.

Razorback assistants Matt Zimmerman and T.J. Cleveland said they’re for anything that helps their players sharpen skills against good competition within NCAA rules – fundraiser tournament included. Zimmerman, a former Missouri assistant coach, said some of his Mizzou players played in a summer league with pros in Kansas City, and that helped them tremendously.

The major problem boils down to college players’ availability if  they were allowed to play in such an event in central Arkansas. Even if the event was only a 2-day tournament, coordinating everybody’s schedule could be an issue. Especially since two summer terms of classes mean a lot of the Razorback players have two weeks away from campus during the summer.

Still, I have to believe if you’re a true baller, you make this happen. Especially if it means getting the chance to play in the same game – in front of thousands of fans – with a guy like Joe Johnson, Sonny Weems or whoever the hot-shot high schooler of the moment is.


One-on-one with Solo

Every time one person interviews another person whose name is Solo for a blog post, you already know at the least the title is taken care of. Fortunately, Solomon “Solo” Bozeman, basketball’s reigning Sun Belt Player of Year, is interesting enough to make delving into the following post itself worth your while:

Bozeman, of course, is the guy who in one magical net-swishing March moment lifted UALR from 20 years of NCAA Tournamentlessness to the quasi-promise land  of Dayton, Ohio. The star Trojan guard would soon afterward end his career with 18 points in March Madness‘ opener against UNC-Charlotte, an overtime game from which he fouled out before regulation ended.

Although his eligibility is gone, Bozeman still keeps his skills sharp playing with Trojans.

This summer, he played in Dunbar Community Center’s summer basketball league with the likes of former UALR players Mark Green, Darius Eason, Nick Zachary and Bozeman’s classmate Derrick Bails. Their team, “Too Fast, Too Furious,” lost in the playoffs but Bozeman contends they would have done better had he played in a higher percentage of the team’s 16 games.

But training and school limited him to six games, said Bozeman, who’s taking nine hours this fall to finish a UALR master’s degree in sports management.

The classes are online in case his agent, Ben Pensack, helps land him a gig playing in Europe or the NBDL this fall.

Bozeman has tried to stay ready. Along with summer league ball and individual training, Bozeman spent a week in New York City in June training under former NBA All-Star Butch Beard. He said he enjoyed twice-daily skills development sessions alongside former Notre Dame forward Carleton Scott.

Bozeman isn’t the only recent UALR grad with an eye on Europe. He said Bails leaves September 7th to play on a traveling team in Great Britain and France, but didn’t have any more specifics. He added former UALR star forward Shane Edwards left last week for Verona in  northeastern Italy to play in that nation’s second-best league. Edwards will join Mario West (Georgia Tech), Jeff Trepagnier (USC) and a surprisingly large Sri Lankan immigrant population.


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