With four starters back from a 20-win team, the Benton Lady Panthers figure to be in the running for a Class 6A State championship this season. So if you had told Bryant Lady Hornets’ head coach Brad Matthews, his team would go almost nine minutes of the first half between field goals against those Lady Panthers, he might’ve wondered what the final margin might be.
But his team played tough defense to keep the game from getting away so when Bryant started to find the range in the second half, they were able to get right back into the game. With a 10-0 run, the Lady Hornets whittled a 12-point deficit to 2, 25-23, with 5:26 left in the game.
But the seasoned Lady Panthers managed to hang on for a 39-35 win as both teams open the 2014-15 season. Seniors Ashlie Dintleman and Braxton Chumley each hit key free throws in the final stages of the contest to preserve the victory. Dintleman, a post player that the Lady Hornets just could not match up well with, led all scorers with 12 points. Chumley, the daughter of head coach Jerry Chumley, had 10 and senior Bayley Landreth 9.
Bryant scored just 3 points in the first quarter and 8 in the half. The Lady Hornets were led by senior guard Jakeria Otey, the lone returning starter. She finished with 10 points. Lauren Carroll and Maddie Baxter added 8 each with Raija Todd pitching in with 6.
“I’ve got to do a better job getting us clean looks,” Matthews said after the game. “Benton, credit to them. Jerry always does a good job with their defense. I thought their length gave us some trouble. I thought we got some decent looks early but we were a little out of rhythm, a little bit off balance.
“But I thought our kids continued to fight, continued to play hard,” he noted. “They fought and scrapped all the way to the end.
“I think if we had made some shots early maybe we would’ve relaxed,” the coach continued. “I think it got to a point midway through the first quarter where we took some shots out of rhythm. You’re not going to make very many of those. But it’s a team deal. We kept fighting.”
“A first game, there’s always things that we see that we’ll work on. I think this team has a chance to be good by the end of the year. We’ve got to grow, come to work every day and keep working. There were things I saw that I’ve got to do a better job on, putting us in situations.”
Neither team got much going in that first quarter. Skylar Davis’ 3-pointer and Carroll’s three-point play had it deadlocked for more than half of the first period. Both teams had opportunities slip away before Landreth, playing off the bench, scored to give her team the edge as Bryant was suffering through its drought.
The Lady Hornets forced several turnovers but just couldn’t take advantage. So when Chumley hit a 3 and Landreth hit a jumper to finish up the quarter, the Lady Panthers held a 10-3 advantage.
Baxter hit a free throw in the early stages of the second period. Otey drove and hit a jumper to make it 10-6.
Meanwhile, it took until the 3:26 mark of the second quarter for Benton to score. Landreth hit a free throw then Tia Brazell added two to make it 13-6.
Following Otey’s field goal, the Lady Hornets began to struggle again. It took over four minutes before Baxter’s driving jumper cut the lead to 5. But Landreth beat the buzzer with a shot inside and it was 15-8 at the half.
Baxter nailed a triple to start the second half but Benton maintained the edge, eventually building the lead up to 25-13. Otey scored with 1:33 left in the third quarter and that started the Lady Hornets’ rally, a 10-0 run.
It was 25-15 going into the fourth quarter. Carroll kept the comeback going with a pair of free throws. Baxter and Todd combined to force a turnover and sophomore Destiny Martin drove for a layup.
Davis missed the front end of a one-and-one then so did Martin. But Martin followed up with a steal that led to driving jumper by Todd that made it 25-21 and forced a Benton timeout.
When play resumed, Todd and Carroll combined on a steal. Todd drove to the basket. There was contact as Todd put up a soft jumper that went in. But what looked like it might be a three-point play opportunity turned into a turnover. Todd was cited for a charge, wiping the basket.
Nonetheless, the Lady Hornets forced another turnover and Carroll drove to bring the Lady Hornets within 25-23.
But Bryant just couldn’t quite gain the lead. Landreth answered Carroll’s basket to end a long Benton drought. But Baxter got fouled after making a steal and, with 4:32 left, cut the margin back to 2.
That’s when Dintleman and Chumley stepped up in a big way. Dintleman posted up against the smaller Lady Hornets, scored and was fouled. Her three-point play was followed up by Chumley canning a 3 from the left corner.
Suddenly, Benton was up 33-25. The Lady Hornets turned the ball over but Carroll made a steal and drove to the hoop. But when there was contact, she too got the short end of the call on a charge.
The Lady Hornets kept coming though. They forced another turnover and Todd cashed in at the free-throw line. Dintleman scored inside but Otey drained a trey and, with 1:20 left, the margin was just 35-30. Dintleman and Todd traded free throws.
Davis missed a reverse layup and came back to foul Otey with :28.6 to go. With Davis headed to the bench with her fifth foul, Otey knocked down one of her two free throws to make it a 4-point game. But with the miss, Benton retained a two-possession lead. Chumley converted twice at the line with :24.2 showing and despite a layup by Otey, the Lady Hornets couldn’t whittle the deficit all the way down.
“Benton’s a good team,” Matthews said. “They’re as good as anybody in 6A. Braxton is a special player and they’ve got good post play.
“We look forward to playing them because it’s such a challenge,” he mentioned. “I look forward to going over there Jan. 6 and playing. It was a great environment tonight. I appreciate our fans coming out and supporting us. Hopefully, when we go over there, it’ll be a similar environment. It’s great high school basketball.”