CONWAY, Arkansas – A.J. Lawson scored 18 points with nine assists and seven rebounds and McNeese used a 12-2 run late in the second half to pull away from Central Arkansas for an 80-70 Southland Conference win on Saturday afternoon.
Lawson scored seven of those 12 points in that run that increased McNeese’s lead from 57-53 with 9:54 to play to 69-55 at the 5:08 mark. McNeese (8-10, 2-7 SLC) maintained its double-digit lead the rest of the way by making four of its final six shots, 2 of 3 from three-point range, and 3 of 4 at the free throw line.
Harwin Francois took control in the final 5:08, scoring seven of his season-high 13 points. Chris Orlina, who returned to action against Lamar last weekend after missing the previous six games due to a broken hand he suffered against UCA on January 2 in the league opener, played 26 minutes on Saturday and scored 11 points and connected on four of his last five shots for the game.
The Cowboys, who are now 2-2 on their current five-game road swing, played for the first time since last Saturday after having this past Wednesday off.
“I’m proud of our guys,” said head coach Heath Schroyer. “They’ve been through so much but have never hung their heads and have continue to battle through everything. The bye week came at a good time for us. We had a really good week of practice and worked on things like winning the battle in the paint and on the glass as well as taking care of the basketball.
“Our kids bought into that all week and executed it today. There were times where we struggled but that didn’t rattle us and we stayed true to the game plan.”
Unlike the game in Lake Charles where UCA (3-14, 2-7) took advantage of the Cowboys playing without league rebounding leader KeyShawn Feazell and controlled the glass with 15 more rebounds than McNeese, the Cowboys were plus-4 in boards on the day, out-rebounding the Bears 35-31 and held a 26-16 advantage with points in the paint.
Feazell matched Lawson with seven rebounds to lead the Cowboys and fouled out with 2:10 remaining in the game.
UCA’s Eddy Kayouloud led all scorers with 20 points followed by Rylan Bergersen with 19.
McNeese took a 36-33 lead into the half after Lawson knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer as the Cowboys rallied from a 27-18 deficit with 7:22 to play in the half.
The Cowboys would not surrender the lead in the second half and built their largest advantage at 79-65 with 1:14 to play.
In addition to Orlina returning to play significant minutes, Jeremy Harrell returned from an injury that has sidelined him the previous four games.
“It’s nice to get Chris (Orlina) back,” said Schroyer. “He was very instrumental in the win. Harwin (Francois) came off the bench and hit some big shots for us. And Jeremy (Harrell) put up some big minutes for us. We’re almost at 100 percent with our team. It’s the first time since Christmas we’ve had that many bodies available to put on the floor.”
Senior guard Ra’Shawn Langston is the only Cowboy sideline as he’s battling a knee injury.
The Cowboys connected on 29 of 60 from the floor for 48 percent but knocked down 14 of 25 from behind the three-point arc for 56 percent. The Cowboys also sank 8 of 11 from the free throw line.
UCA shot 50 percent from the floor (25 for 50), 52 percent from long range (11 for 21) but struggled at the charity stripe, hitting just 9 of 19 for 47 percent.
The Cowboys will have another Wednesday off before returning to action next Saturday at Northwestern State to complete the five-game trip. McNeese will return home on Feb. 17 against Incarnate Word and will play five of its final six in Burton Coliseum.