CONWAY — Facing a much bigger team in the Conway Wampus Cats who had a 6-6 post plus 6-5’s, 6-4’s and 6-3’s, the Bryant Hornets trailed 38-19.
Jumping into a full-court press, Bryant started whittling on the margin as the third quarter unfolded and, for a while, it looked like it might be a game similar to one a couple of years ago that helped the program turn a corner. Back then, the Hornets, who had never won at Conway, rallied from a 16-point deficit early in the third quarter to win, stunning the Wampus Cats.
On Tuesday, playing in the first round of the Bank of the Ozarks John Stanton Wampus Cat Invitational at Buzz Bolding Arena, the Hornets sliced that 19-point deficit to 8 by the 2:25 mark of the third quarter.
But Conway’s Trenton Walder pumped in a trio of 3-pointers over a period that included the final minute of the third quarter and the first minute of the fourth. The Hornets were never able to overcome that as the Wampus Cats forged a 76-57 win that lifted them into the winners bracket semifinals.
The Hornets, now 1-2, will play in the consolation bracket on Thursday at 8:30 p.m., against the loser of the Hot Springs-North Pulaski game, which will happen tonight.
“We got more aggressive defensively there in the second half and I think we caught them off guard a little bit,” commented Hornets coach Mike Abrahamson. “We were able to make some plays and turn it into some easy baskets.”
Bryant forced 11 second-half turnovers. Senior C.J. Rainey, who was held to 5 points in the first half, scored 17 in the third quarter on his way to a game-high 27.
“The first half, it was just so hard to score with (Conway’s) length and their size,” Abrahamson acknowledged. “It was just so hard to get into the lane and make anything happen.”
The Hornets trailed 20-9 after a quarter and 38-19 at the half. They were 7 of 25 from the field at that point (28 percent) while Conway had scorched the nets at a 63 percent clip (15 of 24). The Wampus Cats out-rebounded Bryant 19-9 in the first half but just 35-29 for the game
“We picked it up defensively to try to get easier opportunities offensively,” Abrahamson said of the second half. “And it worked. We cut the lead in (more than) half and I thought the third quarter was great.
“But our depth is a severe problem,” he related. “We have to play a certain way to negate our weaknesses. But we can’t do it if people we need to contribute don’t know what they’re supposed to do, where they’re supposed to be and when they’re supposed to be there and what they’re supposed to do when they are there and how they’re supposed to do it.
“I think, by now, they should know it so well they don’t have to think about it,” the coach continued. “We’ve been doing some of this stuff for a long time — several months for some of these guys. But, for whatever reason, I can’t get through to them. So, we’ll keep trying.”
The scrambling, pressure defense and fast-paced offense that Abrahamson employs to try to make up for the team’s lack of size (no one over 6-3 and most everyone a natural perimeter player), requires maximum effort so depth is needed to give guys a breather now and then so they don’t wear out by the fourth quarter.
Conway scored the first 7 points of the game but Giles drained a 3 to get the Hornets going and after Cedarrian Crosby took a charge — one of four in the game for Bryant, including two by Ricky Buchanan — Rainey fed Desmond Duckworth for a layup. Conway turned the ball over and Giles hit a jumper off a drive and a spin move.
The lead was just 9-7 at that point, with 2:30 left in the opening stanza. But Conway scored the next 11 points capped off with a 3 from Jalen Jones before Rainey beat the buzzer with a pull-up jumper from 10 feet to make it 20-9.
Jones hit a pair of free throws to open the scoring in the second quarter but then Buchanan was fouled on a defensive rebound and he converted both ends of a one-and-one. After a Conway miss, Rainey attacked the basket and came away with a three-point play that had the Hornets within 22-14.
It was 24-15 going into the final four minutes of the half but Conway closed it out with another surge. This time, it was a 14-4 run that started with back-to-back steals and layups by DeMarian Johnson.
Rainey opened the second half with a 3 to start Bryant’s rally. Buchanan absorbed another charge and came up with a steal as the Hornets created some havoc on defense and Rainey continued to either hit field goals or get to the free-throw line or both.
It was 44-36 with 1:31 left in the quarter. Johnson missed two free throws to give the Hornets a chance to get closer but a miss and Walder’s first triple followed.
Walder finished with 18 points. James Grubbs added 16 and Sean Criswell 10. Johnson finished with 9.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Hornets found themselves trailing 55-37. Already in the double bonus, they closed the gap with free throws by Rainey, Duckworth and Crosby. It was 57-43 at the 5:46 mark but that was as close as they would get.
A three-point play by A.J. Burton swung the momentum back Conway’s way.