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Martaveous McKnight returns to lead Arkansas Pine Bluff in new-look SWAC

The guard spurred an attendance spike last season. Can he do more in 2018-19?

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Chances are, few players had an action-packed week quite like Martaveous McKnight did in January.

On Jan. 22, the Arkansas Pine Bluff guard found himself goading his team on after the Golden Lions let a halftime lead slip at Texas Southern. The Tigers had taken a three-point lead with 17 seconds left, and looked like they’d extend their 27-game winning streak, then the second-longest in the country.

“We were down and I was like, ‘Let’s do something, just do something,’” McKnight said. “I was telling the guys it’s not over.”

McKnight went ahead and did something indeed. The JuCo transfer got fouled as he sunk a game-tying three with two seconds left, then got an extra two free throws after Texas Southern coach Mike Davis was hit with a technical. He would win the game sinking two of those attempts, completing a whiplash of a final sequence.

Seven days later he was back at it, hitting a fade-away jumper to beat Jackson State with 2.4 seconds left.

Those late-game heroics were a part of a tremendous season for McKnight — who ended up winning the SWAC Player of the Year award — and UAPB, which finished with its best league record (12-6) in five seasons. Without McKnight, the Golden Lions wouldn’t have been successful.

“Any time you get a player like McKnight, it makes a big difference,” Golden Lions coach George Ivory said.” He’s a real crowd pleaser. His personality is so good off the court, people like to be around him and watch him play.”

People did come out for UAPB in 2017-18. The Golden Lions’ average attendance spiked by more than 250 percent, the fourth-highest increase in the country. Ivory credits that in part to McKnight, who, unlike many reigning SWAC POY winners, will be around to build on the momentum.

The reigning SWAC player of the year has returned after winning the award twice in the past 10 years. TSU’s Derrick Griffin was the most recent in 2016-17, but the two-sport athlete left the team after 13 underwhelming games to prepare for the NFL draft.

McKnight, however, will be back to lead UAPB as it tries to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2010. His breakout debut season — in which he finished third in the league in points per game (18.6), fifth in assists per game (3.5) and second in effective field goal percentage (51.9%) — was no surprise to Ivory.

“We had that expectation for him when we recruited him,” Ivory said. “We thought he had a chance to be a big-time player. Any time we went and watched him, and talked to his coaches, his work ethic was so great. We just knew he couldn’t do anything but keep getting better. You knew he had greatness written on him with that kind of attitude.”

McKnight was also a key cog in Ivory’s signature pressure defense, registering the second-best steal rate in the SWAC while being whistled for fouls at the lowest rate in the country. The Golden Lions’ have been among the most disruptive defenses in the country during Ivory’s tenure, finishing in th top-10 in turnover percentage four times, including last season.

“We like to play up-tempo and we like to think if we can create turnovers we can get easy scoring opportunities that will help us,” Ivory said. “Guys have bought in, they trust the system and they work so hard on defense at practice.”

That system has helped keep the Golden Lions in the upper half of the SWAC for the majority of Ivory’s 10 years in Pine Bluff. They were, however, starting to list in the two years prior to last, finishing with consecutive 6-12 league records. McKnight — along with fellow junior Charles Jackson and seniors Travon Harper and Trent Steen — helped UAPB correct that immediately, roaring out to a 9-1 league start punctuated by a McKnight triple-double (30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in a win over Alabama A&M.

The Golden Lions would go 5-6 the rest of the season, ending the season with a 15-point loss to TSU in the league tournament title game. Ivory hopes that final game has lingered with McKnight through the offseason.

“He knows what it takes, he took us to the championship game,” the longtime coach said. “He tasted it and he knows what he’s got to do now.”

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a fortunate time to have a star in the SWAC as the league suddenly looks a bit more open with Davis no longer at TSU. In his six-year tenure, Texas Southern won 81 percent of their league games and snapped up the SWAC auto bid in four of the past five seasons. Even with the reigning SWAC POY on the roster, UAPB isn’t a loc — or maybe even a favorite — to step into the void left by TSU.

With an APR ban in the background, Grambling State had a great first season under Donte Jackson. The Tigers rode a trio of sophomores and a great defense to the league’s regular season title, and return that core — including point guard Ivy Smith — next season. Prairie View A&M also has a star to build around in point guard Gary Blackston, who engineered the league’s second-best offense in 2017-18. And there’s still TSU, which brought in a proven-recruiter in Johnny Jones, who may well continue the Davis blueprint of loading up on impact transfers.

UAPB will look to McKnight to be a factor yet again, and Ivory tasked him with improving his leadership over the summer. He sounded like he took his coach’s advice to heart when talking about what it would mean for the Golden Lions to break through to the NCAA Tournament next season.

“If we get it done this year, that will help the support around the city out for the next few years,” the now-senior said. “[It’s] always good to get that support. Guys going into next year will be so much more confident and know what it takes. I’m trying to make sure I leave some knowledge with them on what it takes.”

Sophomore forward Terrance Banyard (5.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG) will be one of the players counted on to replace the production with a trio of departing seniors, who made up three of the team’s top-five scorers. That may mean more shots for McKnight, which is something Ivory said he’s comfortable with after he felt the guard took a backseat at times last season.

He didn’t, however, take a backseat when the league was handing out its hardware, and joined his coach — who split the POY award with Avery Johnson in 1987 — in an exclusive club. UAPB will count on that experience as it tries to keep the fans rolling in, and ascend to the top of the SWAC.