Upstart Arkansas-Little Rock takes aim at Sooners

Mar 22, 2010 - 8:43 PM By MURRAY EVANS Associated Press Writer

NORMAN, Okla.(AP) -- At Arkansas Tech, Joe Foley coached two teams to NAIA titles and another to the NCAA Division II championship game. In 16 seasons, he had a 456-81 record.

He didn't need to look for another job. But when Arkansas-Little Rock was looking for a coach in 2003, he was intrigued by a program that lacked any semblance of winning tradition and had even ceased to exist for an 11-year span.

He had little to sell to recruits other than the dream of someday being a Division I winner, and it took Foley six seasons to build a team that now is making noise in the NCAA tournament. The 11th-seeded Trojans (27-6) won their tournament debut Sunday, beating sixth-seeded Georgia Tech 63-53, and will face third-seeded Oklahoma (24-10) on Tuesday.

"That was the challenge I accepted and I wanted because I thought Little Rock could be a special city because you don't have all the pro teams and things to compete with," Foley said Monday. "Arkansas is kind of like Oklahoma. You put a winner out there, everybody loves a winner. I thought that it was a city that if you start putting a winner on the floor consistently, they will get behind it, just like I think they will and have started to do.

"That was the vision I saw and wanted to be a part of."

UALR's records from the early years of its women's basketball program are spotty or nonexistant, but the Trojans didn't have a winning record from the 1978-79 season through the 1987-88 season, after which the program was dropped. It was revived for the 1999-2000 season, but the Trojans went 24-87 during the next four seasons.

Foley took the job only after he was assured UALR planned to build a new arena, and indeed, the Trojans now have played in the 5,600-seat Jack Stephens Center for five seasons. He also warned athletic director Chris Peterson that he'd be recruiting mostly freshmen, which meant the Trojans would continue to take their lumps for a few seasons.

UALR went 10-17, 10-19 and 13-15 in Foley's first three seasons. That progress, and the new arena, began helping him lure recruits like Kim Sitzmann, now a senior starter.

"I didn't want to go to a big-name school and sit on the bench as a freshman," she said. "I wanted to be a part of the change of a program."

Added junior guard Shanika Butler: "He had a good record at Arkansas Tech and he basically said if we work hard and we played together as a team and took direction we would get to these big games one day, and that is basically what has happened with what we've done."

In 2006-07, UALR went 21-10. They went 23-9 and 26-7 the next two seasons, earning Women's National Invitation Tournament berths. This season, the Trojans won 21 straight games before losing 70-68 in overtime to Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt Conference tournament final. They were so unsure that they'd receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament that the school didn't even hold a formal watch party when the 64-team field was announced.

When they learned they were in, "I bawled my eyes out," Sitzmann said.

"I used to (watch) Tennessee and (Connecticut) and all them on TV and thinking, 'Those are the big-name schools. We're never going to be on that level,"' she said. "But we made it! It's just crazy."

Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale can relate to what Foley has done. Like Foley, she came from an NAIA background as a player at Oklahoma Christian and was a top high school coach in Oklahoma when she became the Sooners' coach before the 1996-97 season. After going 5-22 and 8-19 her first two seasons, the Sooners reached the WNIT in 1999 and have made the NCAA tournament field the last 11 seasons after making only two such appearances ever before that.

"He knows how to coach ball," Coale said. "It doesn't matter what level you've been at. He just knows how to coach and recruits well and gets kids who can play the way he wants them to play. He's obviously created quite a following and obvious success in the win-loss column.

"I like coach Foley's attitude and his energy. ... Just at the required NCAA meeting, he had a sense of excitement and a sense of honor at being in the tournament. You just sense his approach was one of, 'This is really cool. This is a really big deal.' And I think his kids played like that ... like, 'We can do something.' And that's fun. When you're a coach you just love for guys to have that approach toward the game."

As Foley predicted, fans in Arkansas are lining up to support the Trojans, especially after they won their first game ever in the NCAA tournament.

"It's like we're representing more than just our school now," junior guard Asriel Rolfe said. "It's like we have the whole state behind us and it makes us want to work even harder."

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