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Tech Men Look to Defend Title in Bartlesville

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Listen to the broadcast over the Internet. In a year when 13-7 was the regular season league record for the conference co-champions --- Arkansas Tech and Harding --- it was clear there was a narrow gap between the top and bottom of the Great American Conference in men’s basketball. “There hasn’t been one game in this conference this season when you could just show up and count on winning,” said Wonder Boys head coach Doug Karleskint, who has won more games (67) in his first three seasons as Arkansas Tech head men’s basketball coach than anyone in history. “I would be shocked if there were any lop-sided scores in this tournament. I think every game will come down to a handful of possessions. We’re looking forward to competing and seeing what we can do.” The balance of the GAC Tournament field is best exemplified by the fact that top-seeded Harding and eighth-seeded Southern Arkansas, who will meet at 6 p.m. Friday, played a total of three overtimes during their two regular season meetings. Arkansas Tech has a fresh memory of why it cannot take No. 7 seed Henderson State lightly. The Reddies led the Wonder Boys by 10 points with less than six minutes to go when the two sides met at the Duke Wells Center in Arkadelphia on Feb. 16. Tech had to close the game on a 13-1 run, including the game-winning layup by Willie Kirkland with 1.3 seconds left, to escape with a 70-68 victory. Kirkland, a senior guard from Graceville, Fla., averaged 28.5 points per game in two regular season meetings against Henderson State. He scored 26 points in a 75-63 Tech win over HSU on Jan. 12 and a career-high 31 points in the victory at Arkadelphia in February. Karleskint knows that his friend and former assistant coach --- Doug Nichols, now in his second season as the head coach at Henderson State --- has been busy formulating a way to contain Kirkland on Friday. “We’re at our best, just like most teams, when we have three guys scoring and we can balance it out,” said Karleskint. “We relied on Willie almost too much at Henderson State. Coach Nichols is going to do something to limit Willie’s touches. You can almost guarantee that. We need some other guys to step up and hit some shots regardless of what defense we face.” Kirkland (13.8 points per game) and senior guard Jared Williamson of Russellville (11.9 points per game) were Arkansas Tech’s leading scorers during the regular season. Senior center Will Paul of Corpus Christi, Texas, was averaging 11.9 points per game for the Wonder Boys before a foot injury on Jan. 17 sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. Paul dressed out for Senior Day ceremonies but did not play in Arkansas Tech’s regular season finale against East Central last Saturday. His availability for this weekend’s GAC Tournament is uncertain. Henderson State won three of its last four regular season games. The Reddies are led by senior forward Andrew Ensley of Dallas, Texas (16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds per game) and junior guard Melvin Haynes of Akron, Ohio (13 points per game, 41 percent 3-point shooter). “We have some seniors that treated each practice this week as if it was their last,” said Karleskint. “That was good to see. Hopefully we can just keep on fighting and live for a few more days.” Other first-round games in the men’s bracket at the GAC Tournament on Friday will feature No. 3 seed Arkansas-Monticello taking on No. 6 seed Southwestern Oklahoma State at noon and No. 4 seed Southeastern Oklahoma State tangling with No. 5 seed Ouachita Baptist at 8:30 p.m. The men’s semifinal games are scheduled for Saturday night. The men’s championship game is set for 3:30 p.m. Sunday.]]>