LAKE CHARLES, La. — The University of Central Arkansas’ grueling non-conference schedule paid dividends Saturday afternoon in the Bears’ Southland Conference opener against McNeese at Burton Coliseum.

The Bears, trailing 9-0 after just 2:30, fought back to secure an 81-67 victory over the Cowboys and open league play at 1-0. UCA had four players in double figures, outrebounded McNeese by 15 and shut down the Cowboys’ high-powered offense, holding them to 32.1-percent shooting from the field and held them 26 points below their season average.

UCA (2-6, 1-0) had played a preseason schedule that featured four Power 5 opponents and the No. 2 team in the nation (Baylor), along with Memphis and Saint Louis. McNeese (6-4, 0-1) had beaten six non-Division I schools in its first nine games and entered Saturday’s game 6-0 at home.

“It was great to come out on the road and to get a win, and to start the conference season like this is great,” said UCA head coach Anthony Boone. “We got down 9-0 but we stayed calm. We’ve been in that situation before, most of our guys have. We just said stick with what we’re supposed to be doing, and our guys kept their poise and made some good defensive plays and we executed offensively, especially in the first half, pretty well.

“And that was what it was. Our guys just stuck to what we do.”

The Bears awoke and put together a 20-6 run to grab the lead over the Cowboys for good at the midway point of the first half. UCA’s lead reached as much as 17 points early in the second half before the Bears fought off several McNeese rallies down the stretch. The closest McNeese would get was seven points _ 70-63 _ with 3:45 left to play. UCA answered that by finishing the game on an 11-4 run to seal it.

Senior guard Rylan Bergersen led the Bears with 18 points after missing the previous game at Baylor due to illness. Senior point guard DeAndre Jones had 14 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals, surpassing the 1,000-point mark with his first basket of the game. Jones is the 20th UCA player to score 1,000 career points and now has 1,012. Jared Chatham and sophomore Khaleem Bennett scored 13 points each as UCA shot 49.2 percent from the field and 73.9 percent from the free-throw line. Freshman center Churchill Bounds played his most extensive minutes of the season (20) after starters Chatham and graduate Samson George fouled out, and scored 4 points, pulled down 7 rebounds and blocked 3 shots.

“He got a couple of blocked shots for us and that was great,” said Boone. “Churchill has a lot of upside. He and Jonas (Munson) both do. Churchill has great hands. And I think he’s been coached very well in Virginia when he was in high school. He has a lot of potential. And as we’ve said before, he has that size that we normally don’t have in our program. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

The Bears’ defense was solid, with only senior sharpshooting guard Dru Kuxhausen causing any problems with 22 points and six three-pointers. Kuxhausen leads the SLC in three-pointers and three-point percentage and went 6 of 11 from beyond the arc Saturday. McNeese was better from three-point range (39.1 percent) than overall (32.1 percent).

“Dru still had a good game,” Boone said. “A couple of missed assignments, a couple of miscommunications on a couple of his shots. But he’s a great player, a great shooter. He was bound to have a good game against us. But overall, our defense was really good. Our guys were really into it. And that’s what we want to do. That’s the first thing we worked on in practice and our guys were tired of it.

“But 32 percent, that’s what we want to do. Every game is not going to be like that, but that’s certainly our goal.”

The Bears return home for consecutive SLC games at the Farris Center today against New Orleans (7 p.m.) and on Saturday vs. Sam Houston State (4 p.m.).

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