Photos by Kevin Nagle
CONWAY — It’s hard to imagine a worse way to end a game, even more so a season.
After battling back to tie the top-season North Little Rock Lady Charging Wildcats 27-27 with :09.1 to play, the Bryant Lady Hornets lost on a foul at the buzzer.
North Little Rock post player Ce’Riah Evans had pulled up for a jumper that wound up falling well short of the target and it looked like the two teams were headed to overtime in the Central Arkansas Junior High Conference tournament semifinal at Buzz Bolding Arena on Wednesday.
Bryant had fouls to give but North Little Rock rushed the ball up the floor and it looked like they were settling for a bad shot.
A lot of officials will tell you they want the players to decide a game at that point but, on this occasion, Evans went to the line with no time left on the clock and delivered a free throw that allowed the Lady Charging Wildcats to survive into the tourney finals on Thursday against Benton.
The Lady Hornets’ season came to an abrupt end. They finish the season 17-5 and a couple of points short of playing for a tourney title against their Saline County rivals. Benton advanced with an overtime victory over Conway White that came down to a last-second shot.
It was the rubber game of three between Bryant and North Little Rock. The Lady Hornets had won 61-52 early in the season but dropped a 45-37 game late.
Jocelyn Tate led the Lady Cats with 11 points. Evans finished with 9. Haya Winfield who hit the game-tying shot finished with 9 for the Lady Hornets. Lauren Lain had 8, Emileigh Muse 6.
Once again, Bryant was without a pair of their prime rotation players, Natalie Edmonson and Jayla Knight because of late-season injuries.
Yet they finished just a basket away from playing for a championship.
“The adversity we faced the last week,” Castaldi said, “It would’ve been real easy to lose Natalie, lose Jayla, not practice hard, have kind of a woe-is-me attitude. But it didn’t happen.”
Even beyond the prep work prior to the game and the start of the contest itself, the Lady Hornets faced up to the fact that they trailed 15-7 at the half and had only scored a free throw in the second quarter.
“At halftime, it would’ve been easy to have that — ‘well, we’re not playing well. The ball’s not falling. North Little Rock was the number one seed.’ To just kind of throw in the towel.
“But they stayed after it,” he emphasized. “They kept that grind mentality and that’s a characteristic that is going to serve them so well in life. How you handle adversity is who you are. And they did a great job. They showed their true character this last week.”
Bryant got started well on Wednesday. Lain hit a short jumper then made a steal and a basket to make it 4-0. Evans scored off the offensive glass but a layup by Winfield had the Lady Hornets up 6-2 and the North Little Rock coaches frustrated enough to call a timeout.
The Lady Hornets went the final four minutes of the quarter without scoring. They trailed 9-6 on a 3-pointer by Zanyatta Cooper that snapped a 6-6 tie.
The Lady Cats pushed the lead to 15-6 and Bryant was unable to score until Winfield hit a free throw with :42.2 left in the half.
“I thought we were executing,” said Castaldi of the first half. “We were getting the ball where we wanted. We just weren’t finishing. On the defensive end, everything they got was off the offensive boards.
“So, it was just kind of getting back to those fundamentals, those day-one things,” he said of his halftime talk. “When the ball’s shot, everyone’s got to block out, not stand. Offensively, finish, keep doing what we were going to do. The ball was going to start to fall. The girls stuck with it, kept at it. They didn’t change anything, didn’t get frustrated. We were able to come back that second half.”
Lain scored inside, Muse hit a 3 then Winfield hit the offensive glass for a basket that had the lead whittled to 1, 15-14, with 4:34 left in the quarter.
The game seemed to hang in the balance there with both teams spoiling the other’s opportunities to change the score.
Finally, with 1:56 left in the period, a 3-pointer extended the Lady Cats’ lead. They were up 25-19 going into the fourth quarter.
Jumping into a trapping defense, the Lady Hornets got a layup by Lain and, off a steal by Muse, two free throws by Lyniyiae Johnson to make it 2-point game. And the Lady Hornets had a chance to tie or take the lead when Johnson and Lain combined to force a turnover.
For three minutes the two teams scrambled back and forth without scoring. With 1:47 to go, a Bryant turnover led to a driving jumper by Tate.
Moments later, Winfield scored inside to make it 27-25 at the 1:28 mark.
After a timeout, Lain made a steal but the Lady Hornets were unable to take advantage. North Little Rock called a timeout with :23.9 left to set up an offense against the Lady Hornets defense. But Lain made another steal with 18 second left.
After a Bryant timeout, Castaldi had the Lady Hornets run a play that was designed to get Muse a 3-point look from the corner. North Little Rock recognized it and made a lunge at Muse only to have the pass faked. Instead it went inside to Winfield for the tying bucket.
“They were really guarding Emileigh hard, trying to run her off the 3-point line,” Castaldi noted. “She got free for a couple but, as the game kind of wore on, I thought we could kind of use that for a distraction and we got some easy looks.
“Our girls did a great job executing that the second half,” he related. “(The Lady Cats) had a little lead there to start the fourth and they tried to slow it down some. Our girls were able to get in there and get some steals, some deflections, and push the pace offensively.”
The Lady Cats got a timeout with :07.4 showing. They needed to go the length of the floor. And their quickness paid off as the Lady Hornets were unable to get to them to use those two extra fouls.
Finally, Evans got the ball on the right wing, dribbled in until she met resistance and shot. The attempt was well off the mark but the foul was called and Evans wound up winning it for the Lady Cats.