CONWAY — It was Jan. 17, 2012.
Mike Abrahamson was in his first year as head coach of the Bryant Hornets basketball team. At the time, the squad was searching for the winning formula. They traveled to Conway that night and fell behind big. But, with a tremendous comeback, the Hornets wound up winning. It may have been the first time a Bryant basketball team had defeated a Wampus Cats’ squad in Conway.
“That changed the whole season,” he recalled Tuesday night.
Indeed, the Hornets went on to win their first State Tournament game in 25 years and advanced all the way to the State semifinals before bowing out at the hands of Bobby Portis and the Little Rock Hall Warriors, the eventual champs.
So there’s some history now of big wins for the Hornets at Conway’s Buzz Bolding Arena.
They got another one Tuesday.
Bryant held the Wampus Cats to 27 percent shooting in the game and just 11 points in the second half including no field goals for the last five minutes as they surged to a crucial 39-32 win.
It was huge for Abrahamson’s young Hornets not only for confidence and a 7A/6A-Central Conference victory but, as a 7A foe, beating Conway made Bryant 2-1 in league games that count towards qualifying for the State Tournament at Springdale Har-Ber. The Hornets are in the No. 2 spot at this point but they’ve still got to play Little Rock Catholic, Van Buren and Conway again.
There was this too:
Last Friday, the Hornets appeared to be on their way to an impressive win over a 15-2 Alma team on the road. But they were unable to finish. The win got away from them in the final minutes.
So on Tuesday, the Hornets were once again clinging to a lead. Lessons learned, they held off the Wampus Cats down the stretch.
“It certainly was a point of emphasis in practice and in our meetings,” said Abrahamson of his team’s improvement at the end. “I told them during that last timeout, ‘You are not melting down. You are good enough to win this game. You are going to win this game.’ I don’t know if that helps or not but they handled the pressure well. It’s a process. We’re growing up as we go.”
Conway was within 2, 34-32, with 3:50 to play when Abrahamson took that timeout. The Cats would manage just one free throw the rest of the game.
“Eleven in the second half — I’m really proud of that,” the coach acknowledged.
Sophomore Lowell Washington hit a clutch basket with 3:33 left to make it a two-possession game. At the other end, Conway’s top scorer Javonte Ellis had his shot blocked by Bryant’s Kevin Hunt.
At that point, Conway had not committed enough fouls for Bryant to be in the bonus. The Hornets spread the floor, milked the clock and absorbed fouls. Though they turned it over with about two minutes left, Ellis misfired.
Bryant spread it out again and, this time, senior Wesley Peters found a lane, got around Conway’s 6-7 post, John Nekronchuk, and scored, pushing the lead to 38-32 with 1:14 left.
Nekronchuk hit a free throw at 1:02 for Conway’s lone point of the final four minutes. The Conway center blocked a shot by Washington at the other end but Hunt came down with one of his 10 boards.
Though the Hornets missed some free throws in the final 50 seconds, Peters stepped up and knocked down a pair with :23.4 left to clinch the victory.
Ellis led all scorers with 16 points, half his team’s total. Romen Martin paced the Hornets with 12. Washington came off the bench for 8 after missing the Alma game due to illness. Calvin Allen and Peters scored 7 each, Hunt 5.
Conway led the entire first half but never by more than 5. It was 7-7 going into the closing moments of the first quarter when Prentice Mullins hit a 3 to give his team the lead at the break.
It was 12-7 early in the second quarter. Martin hit a free throw then followed a Conway turnover with a triple that had the Hornets with a point.
The Cats’ last 5-point lead was 18-13. Again Martin came through with a 3 and, after a Nekronchuk free throw, Washington scored off the offensive glass to make it 19-18.
Conway, which was 9 of 20 from the free-throw line, missed a pair of front ends before Nekronchuk converted twice. Washington hit a 15-foot jumper to make it 21-20 but Denzel Johnson added a free throw and it was a 2-point game at the half.
“The things we talked about at halftime were that we thought our first-shot defense was really good,” Abrahamson related. “We knew they weren’t shooting a high percentage but we were giving up some penetration stuff, we were putting them on the line then there were a few occasions when we were giving them second and third opportunities.
“When we corrected those things, our defense was really good,” he added. “Our defense needed to win the game because (Conway) plays really good defense. We scored just enough points. We hit just enough free throws. It was really ugly but we’re certainly going to take it and be happy with it.”
A 3 by Martin to start the third-quarter scoring gave Bryant its first lead. Allen added a drive for a bucket to make it 25-22. Conway battled back to go up 26-25 but when Allen knocked down a 3 from the right wing at the 4:09 mark, the Hornets were ahead to stay.
Martin added a bucket off a drive and Peters scored after grabbing an offensive rebound to make it 32-26. Ellis countered with a 3 but two free throws from Hunt made it 34-29 going into the fourth quarter.
Neither team scored for the first three minutes of the final stanza. Conway’s Kennedy King broke the ice at 5:01 but that would prove to be the Cats’ last field goal. A free throw by Ellis at 4:01 had them within 34-32, however.
Bryant improved to 9-10 overall and 3-3 in league play with the victory. The Hornets host Siloam Springs this Friday.
HORNETS 39, WAMPUS CATS 33
Score by quarters
BRYANT 7 13 14 5 — 39
Conway 10 12 7 4 — 33
HORNETS (9-10, 3-3) 39
C.Allen 3-6 0-1 7, Peters 3-5 1-2 7, Lewis 0-0 0-0 0, Hunt 1-11 3-4 5, Martin 4-7 1-3 12, Washington 4-6 0-0 8, Turner 0-1 0-0 0, Cowart 0-0 0-0 0, Sahr 0-0 0-0 0, Steen 0-1 0-0 0, R.Allen 0-0 0-0 0, Moody 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-37 (41%) 5-10 (50%) 39.
WAMPUS CATS (12-6, 3-3) 33
Johnson 0-2 1-2 1, Mullins 2-8 0-2 5, Ellis 5-13 3-6 16, T.Smith 2-7 0-0 4, Nekronchuk 0-2 5-9 5, Canada 0-1 0-0 0, King 1-3 0-0 2, K.Smith 0-0 0-1 0, Longing 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 10-37 (27%) 9-20 (45%) 33.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 4-10 (Martin 3-5, C.Allen 1-1, Hunt 0-2, Peters 0-1, Turner 0-1), Conway 4-12 (Ellis 3-7, Mullins 1-3, Johnson 0-1, Longing 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 10, Conway 8. Rebounds: Bryant 12-19 31 (Hunt 4-6 10, Washington 2-4 6, Peters 2-2 4, C.Allen 1-2 3, Martin 1-2 3, Lewis 0-1 1, Steen 1-0 1, Moody 0-1 1, team 1-1 2), Conway 13-13 26 (Nekronchuk 4-2 6, T.Smith 1-4 5, Mullins 2-2 4, K.Smith 0-3 3, King 2-0 2, Ellis 1-1 2, team 3-1 4). Team fouls: Bryant 18, Conway 13.