Hornets’ ambush Rockets with 3-point barrage to open CAJHC tournament

For more photos of this event by Kevin Nagle, go here

Cory Nichols pulls up for a jumper in the lane between a pair of Catholic defenders. (Photo by Kevin Nagle)

CONWAY — On the fourth playing date of the season back before Thanksgiving in 2019, the Bryant Hornets freshman team got their tails handed to them when they played at Little Rock Catholic.

When they played again in Bryant during Central Arkansas Junior High Conference play in late January, the Rockets led the Hornets for three quarters only to have Bryant scramble for a 47-43 win. They were aided by foul trouble for the Rockets’ star C.J. Onykwelu.

On Monday, the two teams met again in the first round of the CAJHC post-season tournament at the old Conway High School gym and the Hornets turned the tables on the Rockets, running away with a 51-19 victory that end Catholic’s season and lifted the Hornets in the tournament semifinals on Wednesday.

Bryant will meet another team that whipped them pretty good during the regular season, Lake Hamilton. Actually, the Wolves beat them twice, 35-25 and 45-23. The Wolves eliminated Cabot North on Monday to advance.

Chris Gannaway finishes off a drive to the basket. (Photo by Kevin Nagle)

The soft spot in the Catholic Rockets’ zone defense was often in the corner. That’s where the Hornets’ James Billingsley set up on offense and his teammates found him for four 3-pointers in the first quarter. Billingsley would add another triple in the third quarter to give him a game-high 15 points. Darren Wallace was 2 for 3 from distance and added 10 points.

But that sharp-shooting was only possible because of the way the other Hornets were able to attack the gaps in the zone and draw the defense for kickouts to the perimeter. If they weren’t stopped by the help defense, they the Hornets took it to the rack, particularly Cory Nichols who finished with 9 points.

Defensively, Bryant forced the Rockets into 24 turnovers, 22 through three quarters before reserves took over in the game for both teams. Onykwelu, playing with a bandaged wrist and an ankle brace, was held scoreless by the Hornets. Cole Eichler led the Rockets with 6 points off the bench.

“We tried to speed it up and tried to make it a pressure game with the guards,” said Hornets coach Tyler Posey. “We didn’t want to let (Onykwelu) get going because we knew he could hurt us inside. He’s got some length and athleticism. So, we were able to take him out by making those guards make decisions.”

Ivory Gilmore releases a jumper. (Photo by Kevin Nagle)

The pressure on the guards by the Hornets’ guards made it difficult for them to pass the ball where they wanted to. 

And when Onykwelu got the ball, Posey said, “We wanted to make sure he was not comfortable with the ball. We would double him in the full-court. We definitely thought we’d use quickness on him. We put our guards on him instead of a forward. We felt like that would make it tough for him to move and it did.”

The victory was Bryant’s fourth in a row.

“We’ve started playing the way I envisioned us playing before the year started,” Posey said. “A lot of energy, a lot of pressure on the basketball and not allowing the opponent to get comfortable. We’ve really done that well the last couple of weeks of the season.”

Bryant out-rebounded Catholic 26-22 with 12 of the Hornet boards on the offensive end.

“We definitely met our rebounding goal,” Posey said.

But, he added, “There’s a lot of things that we can do to improve. We didn’t get to the free-throw line as much as I would’ve liked. We didn’t have as many deflections as I like, also. There are some things that we didn’t execute that I know we need to be better on.”

The game was tied 4-4 late in the first quarter when Billingsley’s barrage began. Braylen Montgomery and Chris Gannaway had accounted for the Hornets’ first two buckets and, as the Rockets became conscience of cutting off those driving lanes, Billingsley became an option. Gannaway found him for his first triple. The next time down the floor, it was Nichols.

Catholic’s Andrew Bean interrupted the run, but Wallace hit a running jumper to counter. A Rockets turnover led to another Billingsley trey and, after a timeout, another Rocket miscue led to Nichols’ drive and pitch as Billingsley dropped his fourth bomb of the quarter with :12 left, making it 18-6.

Wallace followed his own miss to start the scoring in the second quarter. The Hornets forced a five-second call on an inbounds play to get the ball back and Nichols pulled up in the lane for a bucket that extended the margin to 16.

The Rockets scored their lone basket of the second quarter at the 2:28 mark. Bryant then finished the half on a 9-0 push highlighted by a pair of 3’s from Wallace and a driving bucket by Nichols with :05 to go.

The Hornets led 31-8.

Early in the third quarter, the Hornets renewed the barrage with which they started the game. Billingsley took a pass from Montgomery and buried his fifth trey. Off a Catholic turnover, Nichols fouled his way to the free-throw line to make it 35-8. Off another Rockets’ miscue, Billingsley got the assist as Jordan Knox drained a 3 to make it a 30-point Hornets lead.

Riley Mathewitz hit a 3 for Catholic to break the ice with 1:49 left in the third quarter. The game went to the fourth with the Hornets secure in a 42-13 lead.

Down the stretch, the Jaxon Fluger scored 4 points and Davion Moore 3. Alex Skelley had a basket as well as the Hornets’ reserves out-scored Catholic’s 9-6 to set the final margin.



Score by quarters

LR Catholic      6          2          5          6 — 19

BRYANT           18        13        11        9 — 51


Pace 0-1 0-0 0, Thornton 1-3 0-0 2, Bean 1-5 2-2 4, Onykwelu 0-2 0-0 0, Dean 0-1 0-0 0, Eichler 3-4 0-0 6, McDuffie 0-2 0-0 0, Mathewitz 1-2 0-0 3, Smith 1-2 0-0 2, Sufken 1-1 0-0 2, Evers 0-1 0-0 0, Elser 0-3 0-0 0, Vachun 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 8-27 (30%) 2-4 (50%) 19.


Knox 1-2 0-0 3, Billingsley 5-9 0-0 15, Nichols 3-5 3-4 9, Montgomery 1-3 1-2 3, Gilmore 0-5 0-0 0, Gannaway 1-3 0-2 2, Wallace 4-8 0-0 10, Reed 0-0 0-0 0, Vinson 0-1 0-0 0, Baker 0-0 0-0 0, Fluger 1-1 2-2 4, Nagle 0-1 0-0 0, Pitts 0-0 0-0 0, Moore 1-4 1-2 3, Skelley 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 17-43 (40%) 7-12 (58%) 51.

Three-point field goals: Bryant 8-20 (Billingsley 5-9, Wallace 2-3, Knox 1-1, Gilmore 0-3, Moore 0-2, Montgomery 0-1, Nichols 0-1), LR Catholic 1-10 (Mathewitz 1-2, Bean 0-4, Thornton 0-2, Onykwelu 0-1, Elser 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 9, LR Catholic 24. Rebounds: Bryant 12-14 26 (Pitts 0-4 4, Gannaway 1-2 3, Knox 1-1 2, Billingsley 1-1 2, Nichols 1-1 2, Gilmore 1-1 2, Skelley 1-1 2, Montgomery 1-0 1, Wallace 1-0 1, Baker 1-0 1, Fluger 0-1 1, Nagle 1-0 1, Moore 0-1 1, team 2-1 3), LR Catholic 7-15 22 (Eichler 4-2 6, Onykwelu 0-3 3, Smith 0-3 3, Thornton 0-2 2, Pace 0-1 1, Bean 0-1 1, Dean 1-0 1, McDuffie 0-1 1, Vachun 0-1 1, team 2-1 3). Team fouls: Bryant 16, LR Catholic 10.

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