NEW ORLEANS -- Arkansas-Little Rock rediscovered its defensive identity just in time.
Taylor Gault scored 21 points and the Trojans came up with four steals in the last 3 minutes, closing with an 11-5 run to beat Arkansas State 78-72 in the final of the Sun Belt tournament Saturday night.
Top-seeded Little Rock (28-4) earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament with its third tournament title in five years.
After allowing a season-high 38 points in the first half and continuing to give up easy baskets for most of the second half, Little Rock, the nation's third-stingiest defense, turned up the intensity when it mattered most.
"If we couldn't play defense like we did and count on it, we wouldn't have won that ball game," coach Joe Foley said. "Our kids always knew in the back of their minds that we could get some stops at the end of the game if we kept it close."
Little Rock took the lead for good at 69-67 on Kiera Clark's putback with 2:34 left after a steal, then sealed the victory by forcing two more turnovers in the final minute. Dawn's steal and layup made it 76-72 with 36.4 seconds, and Clark came up with another steal on Arkansas State's next possession.
Dawn had 17 points and five steals, and Ka'Nesheia Cobbins added 15 points, six assists and five rebounds for the Trojans.
"It was one stop at a time," said Cobbins, the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. "We just knew if we could do that, our offense would take care of itself."
Sun Belt Player of the Year Aundrea Gamble led No. 2 seed Arkansas State (23-10) with 27 points, but did not score in the last 6:50 and committed a costly turnover that led to the Trojans' clinching basket. Jasmine Hunt added 11 points for the Red Wolves, who never been to the NCAA Tournament and suffered their second consecutive heartbreaking defeat in a final. Last year, they lost 61-60 to Western Kentucky.
Gamble stepped over a chair on the team bench and headed straight to the tunnel after the final buzzer.
"She did everything she could," Arkansas State coach Brian Boyer said. "It was just an amazing effort on her part."
The teams split their regular-season meetings, with Arkansas State winning by one at home and Little Rock winning by two at home, and they had yet another nail-biter this time. Neither led by double digits, and the largest separation was three points from the 8-minute mark of the second half until Cobbins' 3-point play put Little Rock up 72-67 with 2:08 left.
Gamble scored three consecutive baskets on drives into the lane as Arkansas State opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to go ahead 51-47 with 15:19 left. By that time, the Red Wolves already had more than points than Little Rock allowed per game for the season (50.4).
Little Rock led 43-38 at the half despite allowing more points in the opening 20 minutes than in any game this year. Arkansas State connected on 17 of 30 shots (56.7) before the break, with Little Rock right behind at 16 for 30.
The shots kept falling for most of the second half, too, until the Trojans started preventing the Red Wolves from even attempting them. Little Rock was coming off its most lopsided victory of the season, an 87-44 trouncing of Texas State in the semifinals when it shot 54.1 percent.
"What we did defensively (at the end) is no surprise to us," Cobbins said. "How we performed offensively throughout the tournament was a surprise."
The Red Wolves, who had an RPI of 45 entering Saturday, made their case for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Said Gamble: "We definitely deserve it, but it's not in our hands. It's in somebody else's."
Little Rock: Foley, the second winningest coach in Sun Belt history, is one victory shy of 700. The Trojans tied a school record for wins in a single season and can break it with a victory in the NCAA Tournament, where they are 1-2. Little Rock has lost only once since the start of February.
Arkansas State: Gamble's 27 points were her most since Feb. 12 against Georgia Southern. Arkansas State shot 56.3 percent against Little Rock on Jan. 29, the highest percentage the Trojans have allowed, and finished 50 percent this time.
Little Rock: The Trojans will find out their seed in the NCAA Tournament on Monday night.
Arkansas State: The Red Wolves almost certainly will receive a bid to the WNIT if they don't get into the NCAA Tournament.