Hornets cagers bounce back with win over Mills
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By ROB PATRICK
LITTLE ROCK — Depending on how they follow up, the turning point of the Bryant Hornets’ 2006-07 basketball season may have occurred on a Saturday afternoon when they were supposed to be playing at the new palatial gym at Rogers High School but, instead, found themselves at the old, not-so-palatial Galaxy at Little Rock Mills High School.
When the ice and snow hit northwest Arkansas, the tournament in Rogers the Hornets were supposed to compete in was cancelled. That left Bryant and other central Arkansas teams including Little Rock Hall, Little Rock Central and Mills facing a long layoff that had already included the Thanksgiving weekend. So, they cobbled together a jamboree (dubbed the Mills Classic) involving those four teams.
The Hornets, back on the court for the first time since a deeply disappointing loss to the rival Benton Panthers on Nov. 21, opened against the Hall Warriors on Friday, Dec. 1. Against Benton, the Hornets seemed surprised and taken aback by the Panthers’ clinging, physical man-to-man pressure defense; against Hall’s variety of aggressive defenses, the Hornets seemed downright intimidated, suffering a not-that-close 47-38 loss. On Saturday, however, they came back against a similar defensive force and forged a 51-49 victory with junior Chad Knight drilling a clutch 3-pointer with :11.8 left then adding a free throw with a second to go to turn around a 49-47 deficit.
“We moved the ball real well,” commented Hornets head coach Mark Smith. “The pressure — they bring the heat, but we handled the pressure. That was the biggest difference, handling the pressure today and not handling it as well yesterday. We didn’t play scared today like we did yesterday. We were a little bit tentative yesterday; actually a lot tentative. Today, I felt like everyone that came in played with confidence, played with a purpose. (Assistant) Coach (Chad) Withers talks to them all the time and tells them the little things they need to do and not to panic, to play calm and play smart. That’s the main thing, just play smart.
”We shot the ball pretty well and that makes a big difference,” Smith continued. “We had some open looks and that’s a credit to the guys — not just the shooter but everybody else on the floor when you get open looks like that. It was just a great team effort by everybody.
“I thought our defense was pretty good too,” added the coach. “Mills got some open looks but, for the most part, they had to earn their points. They weren’t able to just score at will.”
Zach Lewis and Hunter Sample were particularly tough on defense. Lewis, a 6-foot guard, collected a game-high six rebounds as well.
In fact, the Comets finished with the same number of turnovers (18) as the Hornets.
“Play hard and play smart is the last thing we tell them right before we go out every game,” Smith stated. “If you do those two things, good things happen. It worked out for us today. Everyone played hard, played smart and we finished at the end. When they made a little run to catch up, I was worried that we might lose our head but we didn’t. We just kept doing the things we were doing.”
Bryant led by as many as 9 points in the third quarter. Led by senior Jeremy Nordman, who knocked down six of the team’s 10 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 23 points, the Hornets put together a 10-0 run to build that advantage. They trailed 26-23 at the half. Junior point guard Brandon Cowart (11 points) took advantage of a Mills turnover for a layup to start the scoring in the third quarter then Nordman canned a trey. Cowart drew a charge to get the ball back and Nordman drilled another triple to make it 31-26. Following a Comets turnover and a timeout, Cowart popped from long range. Knight added a free throw after a technical on a Mills player who protested an offensive foul call with :1:18 left in the quarter and the Hornets had a 35-26 advantage.
Mills battled back to within 38-37, getting the last two points of that run on a pair of free throws after Cowart, trying to take a charge, was whistled for his fifth foul.
When play resumed, Nordman flushed another 3 but it only interrupted the Comets’ comeback. With 4:15 left to play, Mills pulled ahead 43-41.
Nordman hit a free throw to make it a 1-point game and it stayed that way for awhile as the teams struggled to take control. After a Bryant timeout with 3:37 to go, Lewis blocked a shot by Mills’ Zack Allen. At the other end, Nordman’s 3-point try wouldn’t fall but the rebound went out of bounds off of the Comets. The Hornets worked the ball until the 2:45 mark when Knight stepped into a 3-pointer that put Bryant back on top.
An answering 3 and a free throw had Mills back up 47-45 going into the final two minutes. In addition, Lewis, working the point since Cowart’s departure, fouled out as well.
Still, the Hornets persevered. Nordman’s offensive-rebound basket with 1:40 to go, tied it. After an exchange of turnovers, Allen hit two free throws with :31.1 showing to put Mills back on top 49-47. The Hornets calmly used 20 seconds to get a good look before Knight canned the go-ahead 3.
Mills called timeout to set up a play. On a drive down the left side of the lane, the Hornets knocked the ball loose and Taylor Masters forced a held ball with :02.9 to play. And it was Bryant’s turn on the alternating possessions. Once they got the ball inbounds, Knight was fouled and added the final free throw despite the fact that he was trying to miss so that Mills would have to try to score off a rebound instead of setting something up from out of bounds. It didn’t matter as it turned out. The Comets turned the ball over on the inbounds pass and the Hornets had the victory.
“Things went good early and the guys got confidence and bought into what we were telling them to do, the spots to go to, and they executed,” noted Smith.
Indeed, the Hornets fell behind early again but they weren’t turning the ball over. They trailed 12-4 but then the shots started to fall. Sample’s 18-footer with 1:25 left in the opening quarter, sparked an 11-3 run that evened the score at 15. It was 15-8 going into the second period then Nordman hit a 3, Masters worked a nice give-and-go with Cowart for a bucket and, after Masters absorbed a charge, Nordman drove for a layup to tie it.
The game was nip-and-tuck after that until the Hornets’ surge to start the second half.
On Friday against Hall, the Hornets fell behind 17-4 in the first quarter and never recovered. The Warriors hit 6 of 10 from the field in the period and not all of those shots were layups.
Hall’s foul trouble helped the Hornets keep it close in the second quarter. Free throws by Lewis and Sample trimmed the margin to 19-11 at one point but the Warriors led 26-13 going into the final minute of the half. A three-point play by Masters cut the margin to 10 at the break.
In the third quarter, Hall got hot again, hitting 6 of 8 shots from the field while holding the Hornets to one field goal. The lead ballooned to 42-18 and the Warriors reserves played most of the fourth quarter. Still, the final margin was as close as the Hornets could get.
Saturday, however, proved not only encouraging for the Hornets because of their own improved play, but because Hall drilled Central by more than 20 points. Central is a member of the 7A-Central Conference with the Hornets.