NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Because they weren’t big, the Bryant Hornets had to really concentrate on blocking out to stay with a team on the boards.
Because they weren’t deep, the Hornets, with lots of talent in the open floor, couldn’t press and trap all game like head coach Mike Abrahamson might’ve liked.
And because of that stuff, they had to shoot well to win; which they did 16 times in their first 24 games, earning a bid to the Class 7A State Tournament as a number four seed from the rugged 7A-Central Conference.
But, because they were young to go along with not being big or deep, they appeared to hit a wall in their 25th game and thereafter. That affected their ability to block out effectively, defend consistently and shoot the ball as well as they had earlier in the season, towards the end.
On Wednesday afternoon in the first round of the State tourney against the Springdale Bulldogs, the Hornets valiantly rallied from an 11-point lead with 6:16 left, whittling it down to a 3-point lead with 4:25 to go. But they could not score after that, though they had several chances to tie it or cut the margin to 1.
Springdale ended the game with a 10-0 run to extract a 51-38 victory that ended the Hornets’ season.
“Two weeks ago, we scored 68 against Southside,” observed Bryant head coach Mike Abrahamson, referencing the contest in which his team had clinched the bid to State with a 68-64 win at Fort Smith Southside. “Since then, it’s been a struggle. I don’t know why. We can’t make shots around the basket, can’t hit shots from 3.”
The Hornets scored 39 against Cabot, 46 against North Little Rock and 50 against Conway before playing Springdale.
“We need to score to keep the energy up,” he explained. “It’s just really hard to overcome not scoring with a young team that’s not as deep or as big as you’d like. And there’s just no room for error.
“But, when you score, it keeps that bounce in your step and you start closing out a little better and get more active hands, you rotate a little faster,” the coach continued. “We had that going for a short stretch there in the second half, but we just couldn’t get enough of it throughout the game.
“And Springdale’s tough,” he asserted. “They were in our face all afternoon long. I give them credit. They were really good defensively.”
The Hornets had to work for everything they got, and they wound up shooting just 27 percent (12 of 45) from the field. Fifteen offensive rebounds enabled them to get that many shots. But they just wouldn’t go down consistently enough, especially over those final four minutes of the game when they forced turnovers and got shots from close range that just rimmed out time and time again.
It was a weary Hornets team that finished the season, despite that last-ditch effort particularly late on Wednesday.
“It may have been more mental fatigue than physical,” Abrahamson related. “I think physical fatigue is part of it but no one on our team this year has been through what they went through this year, that many games, those types of practices, things like scouting reports and weight room — I mean, there are just so many facets to what we do. The mental concentration and the mental focus and mental toughness that it takes — I think we wore down there more than anywhere. It’s just to be expected probably. They’ve never been through it, so how can we expect them to thrive?
“Some of them have been through the practices and the game prep,” he said, referencing seniors Sam Chumley and Deron Canada, “but Sam and Deron have never come close to being asked what we asked of them this year. It’s a lot. And we didn’t have a lot of margin for error.
“But, even to the end, we played hard, gave effort,” the coach noted. “We cut it to 3 and we just couldn’t get over the hump. We had the possessions. There were a few there where we couldn’t put it in the hole around the basket; a couple of charges there in a row, hurt us. Credit to Springdale, stepping in there and taking them. We’re just the type of team where it takes a lot and everybody this time of year that’s still playing is good.”
Khalen Robinson finished with 14 points to lead the Hornets but he was hounded all night and it took 16 field-goal attempts and 5 of 6 at the line to get that. Canada finished with 9 in his last game as a Hornet and Chumley had 8 in his final outing in Bryant blue.
“I’m really proud of them,” said Abrahamson. “When you lose seniors, you feel like you’ve watched them grow up; those two probably more than others because of what they’ve been through and how they had to play behind a bunch of seniors that graduated last year and wait their turn.
“But I’ve watched them grow, watched them mature, watched them put in so much time in the gym and the weight room,” he continued. “I’ve watched them become leaders. I just couldn’t be prouder of them. And they made this season, the regular season, really enjoyable; the most enjoyable regular season we’ve had. Obviously, we want to finish further but, on a day-to-day basis, they made it enjoyable because of the way those two seniors were the glue that held us together.”
Springdale finished with three players in double figures. Trentez Scales had 14 with Carl Fitch, a 6-5 senior, and Vincent Mason adding 12 each. The Bulldogs shot 52 percent from the field (16 of 31) and knocked down 16 of 17 free throws.
“Good, quick guards and they’re big,” Abrahamson said of the Springdale team. “Fitch is such a difference maker, just difficult for us to match-up with. He’s tough.”
Canada had 7 of his points in the first quarter including a 3 that snapped a 6-6 tie with 1:16 left in the period. It was 9-8 going into the second stanza.
As both teams played relentless defense in the first half, Bryant added to the slight edge with two free throws by Robinson inside the first minute of the second quarter. With Springdale already in the bonus, the Hornets went 7 of 8 at the line during the period but didn’t muster a field goal until the final minute of the half.
Though it took Springdale until the 4:35 mark of the second quarter to score, they took advantage of their defense’s throttling of the Hornets to build a lead. The margin reached 22-14 going into the final minute.
Chumley broke the ice for the Hornets with a 3, trimming it to 22-17. Mason hit a free throw but K.J. Merriweather, following a teammate’s miss, was fouled with less than a second left. He knocked down both shots to make it 23-19 at the intermission.
The Bulldogs opened the second half with a 10-2 run to open up a 33-21 lead. Only a drive by Rodney Lambert produced points for Bryant in the first six minutes of the half. Robinson broke through with a 3 then made a steal but the Hornets were unable to cash it in as Chumley’s 3 rimmed out.
Fitch and Robinson traded baskets in the closing seconds and Springdale held a 35-26 lead to start the fourth quarter.
Hunter fed Canada for a basket to start the final stanza. Springdale pushed it back out to an 11-point difference. Chumley cut it to 9 but Fitch answered off a lob inside. Chumley nailed a 3 and the Hornets’ pressure defense forced a 10-second violation by the Bulldogs.
Hunter cashed in with a drive and, after another Springdale turnover against the pressure, Robinson drained a jumper in the lane.
With their lead whittled to 41-37, the Bulldogs took a timeout with 5:19 to go. When play resumed, Lambert set up and took a charge as Scales drove into the lane.
With 4:25 left, Robinson converted the first of his two free throws. When he missed the second, Hunter confiscated the rebound and tried to follow only to have his shot blocked by Fitch. Trying to get it back, Hunter fouled.
Chumley, however, made a steal but has a basket wiped out when he was cited for a charge. In turn, Springdale’s Jajuan Boyd and Scales missed. Marquis Dunahoo rebounded but fouled out on an offensive foul.
At the other end, Hunter drove into the teeth of the defense, pulled up and hit a shot but it was wiped away when he was cited for an offensive foul that looked a lot like an under-cut foul on the defense.
So that was three chances the Hornets had to cut the lead to 1 or even only to come up empty, twice because of disputed offensive fouls.
Mason scored inside with 3:14 left to finally break the drought.
More frustration for the Hornets ensued. Robinson missed then Mason couldn’t get a shot to go. But, the Bulldogs rebounded. Joe Jibke misfired only to have Fitch rebound and score with 2:00 showing.
At the other end, the Hornets missed three shots from point-blank range. Bryant caused a turnover and called a timeout with 1:09 left. They came back out and missed twice.
In the final 45 seconds, the Bulldogs converted 6 of 6 free throws to salt the game away.
BULLDOGS 51, HORNETS 38
Score by quarters
Springdale 8 15 12 16 — 51
BRYANT 9 10 7 12 — 38
BULLDOGS (17-11) 51
Boyd 2-6 0-0 5, Scales 3-7 6-6 14, Jibke 0-2 0-0 0, Johnson 1-1 0-0 2, Fitch 5-7 2-2 12, Donahoo 0-0 0-0 0, Mason 4-6 4-5 12, Eckwood 1-2 2-2 4, Aquino 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 16-31 (52%) 16-17 (94%) 51.
HORNETS (16-12) 38
Hunter 1-4 1-2 3, Robinson 4-16 5-6 14, Chumley 3-10 0-0 8, Lambert 1-5 0-0 2, Canada 3-8 2-2 9, Hilkert 0-1 0-0 0, Merriweather 0-1 2-2 2, Wallace 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 12-45 (27%) 10-12 (83%) 38.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 4-17 (Chumley 2-5, Robinson 1-7, Canada 1-2, Hunter 0-1, Lambert 0-1, Merriweather 0-1), Springdale 3-10 (Scales 2-5, Boyd 1-2, Jibke 0-2, Fitch 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 16, Springdale 18. Rebounds: Bryant 15-6 21 (Chumley 2-3 5, Robinson 3-1 4, Hilkert 3-0 3, Hunter 2-1 3, Lambert 0-1, Canada 1-0, Merriweather 1-0 1, team 2-1 3), Springdale 9-20 29 (Fitch 2-5 7, Mason 0-4 4, Donahoo 2-1 3, Boyd 1-1 2, Scales 0-2 2, Jibke 0-2 2, Eckwood 1-1 2, Johnson 0-1 1, team 3-3 6. Team fouls: Bryant 19, Springdale 20. Fouled out: Springdale, Dunahoo.