The opportunities that slipped away for the Newman men’s basketball team in the last two weeks were tough to swallow.
The chance to host the Heartland Conference tournament, gone. Two games where the Jets could have clinched a share of the league title both resulted in losses.
“It’s been frustrating, I’m not gonna lie,” Newman coach Mark Potter said. “But we’ve gone back to work. We’ve had one of the better weeks of practice we’ve had in awhile. We’re prepared.”
Prepared because the Jets still have a chance to make history with the school’s first NCAA Division II Tournament berth. Third-seeded Newman (19-7) faces St. Mary’s (20-6) in the Heartland tournament semifinals at 5 p.m. Friday in Fort Smith, Ark.
Tourney host and regular-season champion Arkansas-Fort Smith (20-6) faces Texas A&M-International (15-11) in the other semifinal.
“The team that comes out of this will be the one that finds the ability to win a couple of really close games,” Potter said. “What we really need to focus on is rebounding the basketball. When we’ve lost games this year, that’s been something that has really hurt us and it’s something that St. Mary’s does really well.”
The Rattlers are outrebounding opponents 37.7-27.7 this season and are led by All-American candidate Kevin Kotzur, a 6-foot-8 senior forward.
Newman has been outrebounded 37.1-33.7 this season and hasn’t had a rebounder in double digits since Marquis Cuyler grabbed 10 in a win at Dallas Baptist on Jan. 5.
Kotzur, a three-time All-Heartland selection, averages 18.1 points and 10.1 rebounds.
“(Kotzur) is the real deal, I would imagine he’s going to be the MVP of our conference,” Potter said. “He’s huge, and he’s got an incredibly soft touch. If he catches the ball on the block and gets you on his left shoulder, it’s over.”
Ranked No. 21 two weeks ago, Newman went 3-3 to end the regular season. The Jets lost both games against Fort Smith this season, split with St. Mary’s and swept A&M-International.
In the women’s tournament, hosted by Texas-Permian Basin in Odessa, Texas, Newman (11-15) used a late-season surge to grab the No. 3 seed and face St. Mary’s (20-6) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Permian Basin (19-6) faces St. Edward’s (13-13) in the other semifinal.
The Jets won five of their last seven games to even their record at 6-6 in Heartland play.
“We’ve taken a little bit longer to get on the same page,” Newman coach Darin Spence said. “We had a loss at Fort Smith where we were just terrible in the second half, and after that we sat and talked and I seriously challenged our seniors to the point where they were either going to start contributing or we were going to just look at what we needed to do for the future. And they responded. We’ve gotten better ever since and they’ve been a huge reason why.”
Newman senior guard Shamar Acuay was named All-Heartland Conference on Thursday night at the league banquet. Potter was named coach of the year. Marquis Cuyler and Darrell Traylor were honorable mention selections for the Jets.