By Rob Patrick
VAN BUREN — The Bryant Lady Hornets are a win away from playing for a State championship.
Though, in a 32-minute game, they led for about two minutes, 1:21 of that came at the end when Kenzee Calley converted four free throws. The first two snapped a 54-54 tie. The last two sealed a 58-54 win over the Fort Smith Northside Lady Bears at Clair Bates Arena on Thursday night.
Now 24-4, the Lady Hornets are set to play defending Class 7A State champion Fayetteville in the semifiinals on Saturday at noon. The Lady Bulldogs, the regular-season champions of the 7A-West (their lone league loss was at Northside), advanced to the semifinals with a 62-34 win over Fort Smith Southside on Thursday.
Bryant’s winning surge was sparked initially by point guard Haley Montgomery, who had kept her team in the game most of the way. Her 3-pointer with 4:11 left gave her 24 points for the game including 5 of 6 from 3-point range. It cut into the Lady Bears’ 7-point lead.
And, as it turned out, Bryant held Northside scoreless for the final 4:25 of the game.[more]
After Montgomery’s bomb, the Lady Hornets got an offensive lift from Alana Morris, who wound up playing only 13 minutes in the game because of foul trouble. She scored to cut the lead to 2 with 2:36 to play then hit two free throws with 2:16 left to tie the game, accounting for 4 of her 6 points in the contest.
Defensively, the Lady Hornets clamped down on Northside’s talented inside trio of Chauntel Terry, Mannasha Bell and Taylor Green, who combined for 38 of their team’s points. In the final four minutes, Abbi Stearns blocked two shots and Calley started controlling the boards.
Bryant head coach Blake Condley had been told that Northside was one of the best rebounding teams in the state and that proved out for much of the game. The Lady Bears out-rebounded Bryant 32-21 and their total included a whopping 20 offensive boards.
“It wasn’t the first shot. Sometimes it wasn’t even the second shot,” Condley noted. “But when you give them three or four times of shooting it, 20 offensive rebounds? To me, that equates to 40 points. We were very fortunate to have won this basketball game. Northside’s a really good club.
“You’re not going to blow teams out when you get to the State tournament,” he asserted. “You’re going to have to fight and scrap and, I tell you, our last two weeks of the season, the competition we had to play against got us ready to play this game tonight.”
Indeed, the Lady Hornets won three close games against State tourney teams in their league over the final two weeks, along with playing top-ranked North Little Rock as tough as anyone through three quarters.
Calley, who finished with 8 points, collected four rebounds and all of them were huge during the final four minutes.
The first came after Montgomery’s 3. Stearns had blocked a shot by Terry, who led her team with 20 points. The ball went out to the Lady Bears but, moments later, Terry missed again under duress and Calley grabbed the carom.
Morris was fouled with 3:29 left but missed the front end of a one-and-one. At the other end, Stearns rejected Bell’s shot and Calley was there for the ricochet.
On offense, the Lady Hornets got the ball to Morris, who snaked her way to the rim for a basket to cut the lead to 2.
Northside got the ball down low again but Bryant’s Brooke Parish smartly took a foul. The Lady Hornets had a couple to give at that point before Northside would get in the bonus.
The Lady Bears inbounded the ball and wound up turning it over. Morris was fouled with 2:16 left and coolly nailed both ends of the bonus to knot the game at 54. Green, who picked up four fouls in the first half including a technical, fouled out on the play.
Condley had his team jump into a press that turned into a half-court trap and it wound up forcing one of the Northside guards, Chatara Rogers, to shoot it, something they avoided most of the game. Rogers’ shot was rejected by Stearns out of bounds to Northside.
After a timeout with 1:48 to play, the Lady Bears had to use a second when they couldn’t get the ball inbounds. Ultimately, Terry wound up trying a 3 from the top of the key and missed.
Guess who rebounded for Bryant?
Calley was fouled as Bell went over her back. Not only did the Bryant senior go to the line but Bell followed Green to the bench, fouling out.
Calley’s free throws with 1:21 left had Bryant ahead for the first time since the final minute of the first half.
“The last couple of minutes of the game, we executed some things really well,” Condley commented. “I thought we blocked out on defense and only gave them one shot. That hurt early in the game. I mean, they’re relentless on the boards. But, just a couple of possessions, we were able to block out, got an over-the-back call, go down and hit our free throws.”
Again, a Northside guard was forced to shoot. Rogers missed a 3 but teammate Brianna Cole tracked down the rebound after it bounced around unclaimed for a while. Jacqueline Myers, who attempted just two shots in the game, misfired at that point and Stearns rebounded.
Stearns struggled to clear the ball but eventually got it to Montgomery, who worked up the floor against the Northside pressure and, fearing a 10-second violation, Condley called a timeout at just about the same moment that a foul was called that would’ve sent Montgomery to the line where she was 5-of-5 for the game. But the officials ruled that the timeout came before the foul.
And when the Lady Hornets couldn’t get the ball in when play resumed, they had to use their final timeout with :40 showing on the clock.
On a second try, it was a struggle but Morris got it in to Stearns. She, however, was trapped. The ball got loose but she was able to go to the floor to retain possession, preventing Northside from breaking the other way. A held ball was called with the Lady Bears gaining possession, but the Lady Hornets were able to set their defense instead of scrambling.
Rogers was able to drive to the hoop and, rather than give up a lay-in, Bryant’s Hannah Goshien fouled with :10.3 left.
With a chance to tie the game, however, Rogers missed both shots and Calley claimed the board. She was fouled with :08.2 left and, at the other end, put the nail in the Lady Bears’ season, confidently knocking down both shots.
The loss breaks Northside’s run of 12 straight seasons in which it had reached the State semifinals.
“Just perseverance,” Condley said of his team’s winning edge. “I just told them in timeouts, you’ve just got to keep believing, keep buying in that what we’re doing is going to work. It’s worked for us all season long. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep believing that you’re going to win. I think that mental part of it (was key).”
And Bryant’s experience showed against the predominately junior-laden Lady Bears. Early on, the game was called tight. There were 24 fouls called between the two teams in the first half. Morris had three and Shanika Johnson picked up three for Bryant. Green had four and four other Northside players had two each. The Lady Hornets adjusted better. Northside never got in the bonus in the second half while committing 11 more fouls of its own. Bryant responded by hitting 10 of 11 from the line to finish 21 of 25. After going 12 of 15 in the first half, the Lady Bears finished 16 of 21.
“We just had to go to three forwards,” Condley explained. “We’ve got three girls that typically go in for each other at the four and the five. Two of our guards got into foul trouble so we had to go to — somebody would say it’s a bigger lineup but, for us, it’s not bigger, it’s just our post players are all in there together because, you can look down our bench, we don’t have ‘bigger’ sitting over there.
“They just had to play and, honestly, we had to make adjustments (for that) at halftime in some of our sets and some of the things on offense and defense to be able to do it,” he continued. “Luckily, these girls have enough basketball IQ, they can make those changes and they can go out there and execute exactly like we need them to.”
Montgomery refused to let her team fall too far behind. She seemed to come up with a basket every time at crucial moments. She and Stearns combined for 25 of Bryant’s 32 points in the first half. Stearns, who had 13, was limited to one basket early, in the second half. Montgomery came through with 12 more.
“You know, when you get to this time — we talked about it on the way up here — somebody’s got to step up and have big games in the State tournament,” Condley said. “We may get somebody that’s done it all year or we may get somebody that hasn’t had a big game all year. It doesn’t matter. Somebody has to be the X factor. I think Haley was the X factor tonight.”
Bryant trailed almost the entire first half. Cole hit a 3 to start the scoring as Northside got out to a 10-4 start.
After a timeout, Montgomery drove the lane for a three-point play to get her team back on track. Rogers hit a driving jumper in response only to have Montgomery drain her first triple.
And when Stearns hit four straight free throws, the game was tied at 14. But Northside pushed the lead out to 20-14 before, with :10.6 left, Stearns and Green collided in the front court. Green picked up her third foul then was hit with a technical after her reaction.
It was, however, a little foreboding when the Lady Hornets got just one point out of the four free throws and the subsequent possession.
It was 20-15 going into the second period.
Bell scored the first 3 points of the second quarter to give Northside its largest lead of the game, 23-15. It was margin they would match in the second half.
This time, Montgomery stepped forward again with a trey and, after Terry hit two free throws, she canned another troika to trim the lead to 25-21. Parish followed up with a steal that led to a 12-foot jumper by Calley as the lead continued to dwindle.
Terry hit the offensive glass to interrupt the Bryant run with a stickback with 3:51 left in the half.
Stearns hit a free throw. Northside’s Charmaine Whitmore missed a front end but the rebound was claimed by the Lady Bears and Cole went to the line where she hit two to make it 29-24.
Goshien answered in kind with 2:24 left in the half and, after a Northside turnover, Parish took a lob pass from Calley and scored as she was fouled. Her free throw tied the game at 29. Another Northside turnover led to a three-point play by Stearns that gave Bryant its first lead with :45.1 showing on the clock.
But the Lady Bears tied it when Dayayla Clayton took and sank her only shot of the night, a 3-pointer from the corner to bat the buzzer, making it 32-32 at the break.
By midway through the third quarter, Northside was back up by 8, 44-36. That’s when Montgomery cut loose again. She knocked down a 3 then in just seconds both Johnson and Morris picked up their fourth fouls and came out.
Northside missed several opportunities to answer. On one possession, the Lady Bears got five shots without scoring.
Montgomery hit two free throws with 2:20 left in the period to close the game. Whitmore scored off the offensive glass but Montgomery drained a 15-footer and, after a Northside turnover, knocked down two more free throws that had the lead whittled down to 46-45, before a basket in the final seconds by Terry that made it a 3-point game going into the fourth quarter.
Calley’s drive from the post for a basket was, however, Bryant’s only points during the first 3:49 of the period and Northside built the 54-47 lead. Terry’s jumper in the lane at the 4:28 mark set that score and, as it turned out, proved to be the last points the Lady Bears would muster.
Northside finishes its season 21-9.