So Neal took his fury out on Appalachian State Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, eliminating the Mountaineers almost single-handedly with his 37-point scoring outburst in the fourth-seeded Mavericks’ 84-68 victory.
Neal had already burned ASU for games of 27 points in an 80-76 loss in Boone on Dec. 31 and a career-high 38 when UTA beat the Mountaineers 89-77 in Arlington on Feb. 1. He continued to be App State coach Jim Fox’s worst nightmare in Friday’s third game of the season matching the two teams, scoring 24 points in just the first 12 minutes of play.
Neal drilled his first 10 shots from the field to jumpstart the otherwise-sluggish Maverick offense, giving Arlington (20-12) a quick lead on the way to its wire-to-wire win.
“Neal was incredible that first half,” Fox recalled afterwards. “It really put us on our heels and affected our game offensively. You start trying to hit home runs, and when you try to hit home runs against a team like that, they make you pay.”
No. 5-seeded Appalachian (15-18) appeared leg weary throughout the contest, hitting only 3-of-22 three-point shots (14%) two days after going 12-of-22 (55%) in its 93-64 first-round blowout of Arkansas-Little Rock. Overall, the Mountaineers shot just 23-of-68 (34%) against the Mavericks.
An 11-0 run midway through the first half gave UTA its largest first-half lead at 28-12. Despite the slow start on offense and the problems in defending Neal, App State managed to cut UTA’s advantage to 12 points at 43-31 when Isaac Johnson scored on a lay-in in the final minute.
But that was as close as Appalachian could get the rest of the way. The Mountaineers suffered through one five-minute stretch in the second half without a field goal and the Mavericks pulled away.
Griffin Kinney, playing his final game as a Mountaineer, was really App State’s only dependable threat on offense. The senior power forward scored 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting and added six rebounds as the Mountaineers grabbed the advantage on the boards, 42-33.
But rebounding was one of the few Appalachian highlights.
Freshman Justin Forrest scored 17 points, but Ronshad Shabazz recorded only 10 as he was harassed most of the day by the sterling defense of Neal. The Appalachian guard duo was a combined 8-of-25 from the field.
That wasn’t enough to keep pace with Arlington’s star players, Neal and projected-NBA talent Kevin Hervey (17 points, five rebounds, three assists).
“We double-teamed (Neal) a lot in the first half, and in the second half,” Fox acknowledged. “Right in front of me at the end of the first half, there were two guys on him and he pulled up and made a 25-footer. I’ll be interested to see the film and see if we made mistakes where he made us pay. Sometimes the operation is a success and the patient still dies, and he’s a heck of a player. And he’s probably ticked off that he got second-team all-league, and he made us pay for it.”
The victory puts UTA into Saturday night’s Sun Belt semifinals against regular-season champion Louisiana-Lafayette (27-5), which beat Texas State 80-54 earlier on Friday. On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Georgia State drilled No. 7 Troy 73-51 and Georgia Southern edged Louisiana-Monroe 63-55.
After going 9-21 last season with just four conference wins and a blowout loss in the first round of the conference tournament, the Mountaineers showed improvement at the end of the 2017-18 campaign, winning six of eight games before Friday’s loss, improving to 9-9 in regular season league play and winning their first-ever Sun Belt tourney outing.
“Our guys believed we were right in it and we had come back in a couple of games in the league before, so we had great belief coming out of the locker room,” Fox said. “(The Mavericks) are a really good team – they were picked first at the beginning of the year for a reason and they have great players. You are looking at a team in us that was picked last or next to last, and that wasn’t even close. So I am proud of our team and the way they competed.”