Bentonville stunned again by pesky Lady Hornets

CABOT — You know when, like, nobody thinks you can? And then you do? And they’re like “What happened?’ And you’re like, “We won!” And they’re like, ‘How did that happen?” and you’re like, “Oh, yeah!” And you’re so happy and they’re so sad?

Well, picture the Bryant Lady Hornets, coming into the Class 7A State Tournament after kind of a schizoid season, finishing 10-15, and opening up against the Bentonville Lady Tigers, with a sparkling 20-6 record and only one loss all season outside the highly-regarded 7A-West Conference. And they’re like, “We want revenge for being knocked out of State in the first round in overtime by Bryant last year.”

(Okay, I’ll stop that. Let’s start again.)

For the second year in a row, the Bryant Lady Hornets stunned the Bentonville Lady Tigers with a first-round victory at the Class 7A State Tournament that nobody saw coming, except maybe the Lady Hornets themselves, head coach Brad Matthews and assistant Joanna Curtis.

The Lady Hornets defeated the Lady Tigers in overtime last season despite being an underdog then too.

It’s the first time a Bryant girls team has won State tourney games in back-to-back seasons since the 1994-95 and 1995-96.

Bryant trailed only briefly early in each half on the way to the impressive 53-48 win against a Bentonville team that was much, much taller including starting guards that were 5-10 (Lauren Hargus) and 6-0 (Madison Brittain) and were both among the top 10 in scoring in the West Conference, plus a forward (Maren Johnson), another top 10 scorer in their league, listed in the tourney program at 5’12”. (Really.)

Brittain, who was second in the league with a 14-point average, finished with 9 in what turned out to be her final high school game.

But, behind 21 points from sophomore Raija Todd, 11 from Emily Ridgell, all in the second half, at 8 by Rachael Miller and 7 from Raven Loveless, the Lady Hornets prevailed.

Known for their shooting, however, the Lady Tigers struggled from the field particularly from 3-point range where they converted just 2 of 19 shots. They were also 18 of 31 from the free throw line including a late improvement, 11 of 15 at the stripe in the fourth quarter.

Each of Bryant’s starters (Todd, Ridgell, Miller, Destiny Martin and Kendal Rogers) converted free throws down the stretch. The Lady Hornets hit just enough of them (12 of 19 in the final period) to maintain the lead. Bryant led by 9 early in the fourth quarter and Bentonville could never get the margin below 3.

Bryant always had an answer when it got that close. The key play may have been with less that 1:40 to go, Bentonville had cut the margin to 44-41 then came up with a steal but before the Lady Tigers could run it into the front court, Ridgell swiped it back and drove for a layup to make it a two-possession lead.

Hargus, who led her team with 18 points, drove for a basket to make it 46-43 but, after a timeout by each team, Ridgell was fouled with 1:01 to go and pushed the lead back to 5 with two from the line.

Abby Roberts converted twice to cut it back to 3 only to have Martin coolly go to the line and convert her first two free throws of the game. The Lady Tigers never got it back to 3 after that. Todd hit a free throw with :18.6 showing to make it 51-46 then blocked a 3-point try by Ashley Murch. Ridgell rebounded and was fouled after getting the ball into the front-court and whittling the time down to :05.4.

She converted to seal the victory. Hargus hit a layup at the buzzer to set the final tally.

“I thought we had a great week of prep,” said Lady Hornets coach Brad Matthews. “We’ve known for probably two weeks that Bentonville was probably who we were going to play. We had plenty of time to prepare. I thought we had a decent game plan and I thought our kids executed it well.

“That’s something we’ve been building on the last two, three, four weeks of the season, executing game plans much better that we were in early January,” he related. “This was a good win for our team, good win for our program. Bentonville, Coach (Tom) Halbmaier does a great job. I know they were prepared so it’s a good win.

“Obviously, Todd really played well,” the coach asserted. “She got us off to a good start. I thought that relaxed us. Emily Ridgell played really good on defense. We played really good team defense until toward the end there where we gave up some penetration.”

Though they started out in man-to-man, the Lady Hornets got into some early foul trouble and went to a zone, hustling to close out on Bentonville’s 3-point shooters.

“Bentonville shoots it so well,” Matthews said, “ that they’re always a threat. They’ve got multiple kids that can knock down shots. Brittain, OBU signed her and Coach (Rhonda) Crowder’s getting a great player there.

“Bentonville’s one of the best teams in the state in transition,” he mentioned. “They’re so big and lanky and athletic, they’re hard to stop if you give them room. I thought our transition defense was really good and it needed to be.

“We went with Rachael and Raven a lot the first half and that helped,” the coach responded after being asked about countering Bentonville’s size. “We tried to go zone. They’ve got such good shooters so you’ve kind of got to pick your poison almost. Raven came in and gave us a boost. We just tried to block out and limit them to one shot the best we could.”

The Lady Hornets actually out-rebounded the Lady Tigers, 34-32, led by Ridgell with seven and Miller with six.

Matthews is in his fifth year in Bryant and this is the third time his team opened play at State against Bentonville (including a 51-35 loss in his first year 2011-12).

“We’re kind of familiar with each other that way,” Matthews said. “I’m really happy for our kids. They were 10-15 but they’ve continued to fight, continued to play hard. A lot of 10-15 teams fold it in mid-February and we didn’t. We beat Russellville, No. 1 in Class 6A at the time, now to come in here and beat a very talented Bentonville team is a tribute to our kids.”

Both teams struggled to score early but Bentonville got it going well enough to establish an 8-3 lead. Matthews called a timeout with 2:41 left in the opening quarter and his team responded. A three-point play by Loveless provided the spark. After a Bentonville miss, Todd rained down a 3. She then cashed in off a Bentonville turnover, pulling up and hitting a jumper to give Bryant an 11-8 lead and forcing Halbmaier to call a timeout.

Two free throws from Johnston made it 11-10 going into the second quarter.

But Todd opened the new stanza with her second triple. Brittain scored and, moments later, added a free throw to trim the margin to 14-13 and the Lady Tigers had a chance to take the lead but Brittain missed a 3-point try and, in response, Loveless got behind the Bentonville press and hit a layup.

Bentonville got one free throw out of four attempts over the next minute. With under three minutes in the half, Todd misfired but senior Taylor Hill scrounged for the rebound, somehow came out of the trees inside and flipped to Loveless for a short jumper.

Brittain cut it back to 2 but two free throws from Miller offset a drive by Hargus and the Lady Hornets held a 20-18 lead at the half, despite three starters with two fouls.

Struggling from 3-point range — 1 of 10 in the first half — the Lady Tigers began trying to drive the ball and Hargus opened the second half with back-to-back hoops to give her team a 22-20 lead. Off another drive, she made it to the free-throw line to extend that margin only to miss both shots.

In turn, Todd drove for a basket to spark a most important response. Following a Bentonville miss on a 3, Todd hit from downtown. That gave Bryant a 25-22 lead with 4:06 left in the third quarter.

They never trailed or were tied after that.

Todd made a steal and Miller made a nice move to the bucket, banking in a sweeping shot. Trailing by 5 all of a sudden, the Lady Tigers needed a timeout.

And Krista Clark scored for them with under two minutes left. But Ridgell, scoreless and frustrated to that point, found the range on a 3.

In turn, Brittain converted a pair of free throws. With :39 left, however, Rogers and Miller worked a pick-and-roll. Rogers made a splendid pass and Miller turned it into a three-point play, pushing the margin to 33-26, a lead that held until the end of the period.

A step-back jumper from 15-feet by Todd in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter produced Bryant’s largest lead of the game at 35-26. After two free throws by Clark, Ridgell fed Martin for a layup to make it a 9-point edge again.

It was at that point that Abby Roberts hit the first 3 for Bentonville since Alexia Hernandez knocked one down to give her team a 4-2 lead about halfway through the first quarter.

Ridgell drove for an answering basket and, after Hernandez and Todd traded free throws, Hargus sparked the first Lady Tigers’ push to get within 3. With 2:56 left, it was 42-39.

Rogers converted a free throw to make it a two-possession game again with 2:36 left. Miller added one with 1:55 left to make it 44-39. It was free throws by Roberts that got the Lady Tigers back to 3 with 1:40 to go and it was Roberts who made the steal that led to Ridgell’s big theft and layup to deny Bentonville’s shot at getting closer.

For their reward, the Lady Hornets will advance to play North Little Rock, the No. 1 seed from the East, at 23-5. The game will be Friday at 4 p.m. and, well, it’s going to be another situation where, like, nobody thinks they can.

We’ll see.

LADY HORNETS 53, LADY TIGERS 48

Score by quarters

BRYANT          11       9          13       20 — 53

Bentonville     10       8          8          22 — 48

LADY HORNETS (11-15) 53

Todd 7-18 4-6 21, Ridgell 3-13 4-4 11, Martin 1-2 2-4 4, Rogers 0-1 2-5 2, Miller 2-3 4-5 8, Loveless 3-3 1-1 7, Hill 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-40 (40%) 17-25 (68%) 53.

LADY TIGERS (20-7) 48

Hernandez 1-2 2-2 5, Hargus 7-13 4-12 18, Johnston 0-2 2-2 2, Brittain 3-12 3-4 9, Murch 0-2 0-0 0, Clark 1-4 3-4 5, Byford 0-3 0-0 0, Roberts 2-4 4-7 9, Hughes 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 14-43 (33%) 18-31 (58%) 48.

Three-point field goals: Bryant 4-13 (Todd 3-6, Ridgell 1-5, Rogers 0-1, Miller 0-1), Bentonville 2-19 (Roberts 1-2, Hernandez 1-1, Brittain 0-6, Hargus 0-4, Clark 0-2, Byford 0-2, Murch 0-1, Hughes 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 15, Bentonville 9. Rebounds: Bryant 9-25 34 (Ridgell 2-5 7, Miller 1-5 6, Rogers 0-5 5, Martin 3-1 4, Loveless 1-3 4, Todd 0-3 3, Hill 1-1 2, team 1-2 3), Bentonville 11-21 32 (Johnson 4-4 8, Brittain 3-3 6, Byford 0-4 4, Hargus 2-1 3, Murch 0-2 2, Clark 0-2 2, Hernandez 0-1 1, Roberts 0-1 1, team 2-3 5). Team fouls: Bryant 22, Bentonville 21. Fouled out: Bryant, Loveless, Miller.

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