FORT SMITH — Two teams with a combined record of 18-2 just happened to be matched up in the first round of the annual Coke Classic at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith on Thursday and the game developed as expected.
The Bryant Hornets and the El Dorado Wildcats went double overtime.
The Wildcats, with 6-11 University of Arkansas commit Daniel Gafford, finally held forth with an 80-78 victory.
The Hornets got down 14 in the first half but rallied to take a lead in the second half. They had a chance to win it in regulation but El Dorado tied it. In the first overtime, the Hornets got the last shot but it refused to fall.
Romen Martin, Braylen Steen and Calvin Allen each had 18 points for Bryant. El Dorado guard Czar Perry scored 28 with Gafford finishing with 22 points.
“(Gafford) is not all they’ve got,” noted Hornets coach Mike Abrahamson. “They’ve got two really dynamic guards and some pretty good players around those three as well.
“We talked a lot about 6-11, 6-11 and what we were going to do,” he related. “You can talk all you want but, until you get out there, it’s not the same. You can’t simulate that (in practice).
“At the start of the game, we’re struggling to score,” the coach added. “We’re getting open shots but we’re not really getting in rhythm. We’re kind of rushing it a little bit. Gafford was really affecting the game. He does the whole game. And their point guard (Perry) is just amazing. He had 26 and hit some really tough shots.”
The Hornets cut it to 10 at the half, 37-27.
“The second half, we make a few adjustments and the guys got a little more comfortable, realizing, I think, that they could play against this team and get decent shots,” Abrahamson said. “So we did a much better job the second half.”
Bryant forged a 50-49 lead by the end of the third quarter.
“We had a chance to win it down the stretch,” the coach said. “(Gafford) was still affecting the game. It’s not just the shots that he blocks. He altered a lot of shots. He maybe got our guys thinking about it. And we missed a few layups when he wasn’t even around at all.”
Inside the final minute, the Hornets had the lead and El Dorado hadn’t fouled enough to get them in the bonus.
“They had to foul us five times before we got to the one-and-one,” Abrahamson recounted. “We kept taking care of the ball.”
Martin finally went to the line and hit the front end of a bonus opportunity to give Bryant a two-point lead.
“They went right down and ran an isolation play that they’d run all night and we’d done a pretty good job of guarding,” Abrahamson said. “But we gave up a layup.
“So we go to overtime then double overtime,” he continued. “In the second overtime, it was just too much of 6-11, 42 minutes of it by then. Altered shots, blocked shots, rebounds.
“Our kids played really hard,” the coach asserted. “I’m proud of the way they came back after being down double-digits in the first half. They really battled. But, just having a 6-11 in there makes life difficult for us. I bet he had a triple double with blocks and rebounds. And the thing is, we didn’t do a terrible job on him defensively. On offense, he would just stand in the lane and alter shots. And rebounds come so easy to him. He’s not just 6-11. He’s athletic.
“It was a good experience for us,” he continued. “We’re disappointed we couldn’t come out on top but our guys played really hard and did a lot of things really well. The second half, we really attacked the basket, got some layups, got around him. We got some 3’s and did a much better job. We just couldn’t do enough to win the game. Every possession, our guys had to give it all they had. Nothing came easy.”
In the first half, Abrahamson noted, the Hornets were unable to get a 3-point shot to go in.
“That’s kind of what we do,” he said. “We don’t hit a 3 but we go 7 for 10 from the free-throw line. The second half, we hit three or four 3’s but we go 2 for 8 from the free-throw line. So we had an opportunity to close it out and we didn’t.
“Still, I’m really proud of my guys for the effort they put out,” the coach concluded.
The Hornets, now 9-2, will face Charleston on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. They’ll close out the tourney on Friday at 1 p.m. or 2:45 p.m.