File photo by Kevin Nagle
CABOT — The Bryant Hornets are one win away from playing for the Class 7A State championship. They’ll be playing the host Cabot Panthers tonight at 8 p.m., for a chance to play in the title game at Summit Arena in Hot Springs next week against the winner of the other semifinal between Central rival Van Buren and Bentonville with Kentucky-signee Malik Monk.
The Hornets put themselves in this position by knocking off the No. 1-ranked Fayetteville Bulldogs and Vanderbilt signee Payton Willis, 65-56, on Friday night at Panther Arena.
It’s the second State semifinal for the Hornets since the arrival of head coach Mike Abrahamson. The last time was also at Cabot in 2011-12 when Bobby Portis (currently with the Chicago Bulls in the NBA) and Little Rock Hall spoiled Bryant’s bid to reach the finals.
The Hornets hit 11 of 19 from 3-point range and frustrated the Bulldogs with their scrambling, swarming (if you will), hybrid zone. Though the Hornets had to rally from early deficits that developed in the early stages of both halves.
In the first half, an 11-0 run erased Fayetteville’s 11-2 start. In the second half, the Bulldogs pushed out to an 11-point lead but then went 6:40 without a field goal as the Hornets exploded with a 19-2 run that gave them the upper hand for good.
They hit most of their free throws down the stretch to extend the lead and forge the win, described by most of the sports scribes on hand as “stunning.”
“They were ranked by other people,” said Bryant’s lone senior starter Kevin Hunt, who scored 14 points including a trio of 3’s. “But once the State tournament starts, ranking doesn’t matter at all. It starts with the heart, the grind and the process and we just had more heart and grind.
“Our kids have developed a certain toughness and resiliency and relentlessness in pursuit of playing the game the right way,” stated Abrahamson. “I’m very proud of that. Just the intestinal fortitude of our team was impressive to me.”
“Down the stretch, we never wavered, didn’t flinch,” he noted. “We executed against pressure. We had fewer turnovers the second half than we did in the first against pressure and traps and a team trying to make a comeback once we got the lead. We made free throws, got rebounds. There’s really no secret to it.”
Late Thursday night after his team had opened the tournament with a 58-27 romp over Rogers Heritage, Abrahamson watched several videos of Fayetteville games. He was impressed with the 24-3 Dogs who won the 7A-West, beating Monk and the Tigers twice along the way.
He gained the insight to formulate a game plan. Though he didn’t elaborate on it before the game, it became apparent — and checking the Bulldogs’ results this season — Bryant’s quickness was not something Fayetteville had faced much. And few, if any, had played the kind of defense the Hornets bring.
But even before looking at the video — just after the win over Heritage, in fact — the coach knew his team would have to hit shots.
Now, Hunt along with juniors Calvin Allen and Romen Martin, have each had games in which they knocked down multiple 3’s and scored at or over 30 points individually; but there haven’t been many where all three of them got going from outside. Abrahamson had relished the idea that it could happen and, as it turned out, it couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Martin finished with 21 points and Allen 17.
“We have a hit-the-open-guy philosophy,” Abrahamson asserted. “And that’s what they were doing.
“It’s just a matter of getting multiple guys the looks and for them to go in on the same night,” he added. “I knew, as a coach, that we had to make some shots tonight and we did.”
Asked when he realized that the Hornets could play with the top-ranked Dogs, Hunt stated, “I knew it before it started. Coach wanted us not to tiptoe into the game. We didn’t but it’s how we responded. It made a big difference.”
“Tiptoe into the game” has become a key phrase for the Hornets lately. It became a thing after Bryant did just that in a lopsided loss to Conway the last week of the regular season.
But fast start by the Bulldogs had the Hornets on their heels. They didn’t score until the quarter was nearly three minutes old. Martin ended the 9-0 run with a drive to the rack. Willis, who finished with 18 points but just 3 in the fourth quarter, drove for a layup to answer Martin’s bucket.
But a post-up bucket by Lowell Washington started Bryant’s breakout run. Hunt and Allen each hit 3’s and Martin added a free throw to make it 11-11 at the end of the period.
A drive from Martin who drew the defense and dished to a wide-open Steen who canned a 12-foot jumper gave the Hornets their first lead at 13-11 in the opening seconds of the second quarter.
“It was tough,” Abrahamson said. “We had several opportunities to fold and our kids didn’t do it. At the start of the game, they could’ve folded right there and they didn’t. They responded and fought back, started executing, started defending.”
Asked when he thought his team realized they weren’t overmatched by the talented Bulldogs, the coach said, “I think it was the end of the first quarter. We were down 11-2 then we went on a 9-0 run to close the first quarter to make it 11-11. The quarter ended and I think that’s when we realized we could play with them and beat them.
“I tried to warn the guys about (Fayetteville’s) transition offense and the way that they push it off our misses,” he mentioned. “I think the first half, it was a little bit more than they thought it was. It was faster and the passes they make, other teams won’t make those outlet passes. And some of the post-entries that they make, a lot of teams won’t make those passes. Fayetteville will.
“It’s one thing to try to explain it to our guys and talk about it and practice it,” Abrahamson continued. “It’s another thing when it’s real time and it’s their specialty. So, at halftime, we tried to make a commitment to not give those things up. We did a much better job second half.”
The lead seesawed in the second quarter. Bryant led 26-22 going into the last three minutes of the half. Fayetteville closed out the period with a 9-0 run that included a three-point play by Willis and a pair of 3’s by Josh Breathitt had the Bulldogs up 31-26 at the intermission.
Fayetteville’s surge continued early in the third quarter. Hunt kept the Hornets in contention with a pair of 3’s but the Bulldogs built the lead to 43-32 by the four-minute mark of the period.
Abrahamson called a timeout and, sparked by Martin, the Hornets erased that 11-point deficit with the huge run.
Bryant had figured out that it was going to be difficult to attack the basket and score against the Fayetteville bigs. But the Hornets could drive past the man-up defender then before the inside resistance came, they started kicking the ball out to the perimeter where they hit all those 3’s.
Martin contributed two free throws to start the blitz with 3:46 left in the third. Hunt made a steal that led to a 3 from Martin. Fayetteville’s Austin Carlson hit a free throw to interrupt with 2:40 to go but Martin drained another 3 as the momentum started the build for Bryant.
After a Fayetteville turnover, Martin got a look from 3 but the Bulldogs closed out quickly to prevent it. Martin, however, drove past much of that defense and scored at 2:01 to make it a 2-point game.
Neither team scored after that until Martin fed Allen, who drove up the baseline and, avoiding the Bulldogs’ posts, hit a nice reverse layup that tied the game 44-44 with :46 left in the period.
Tyler Roth added a free throw to put Fayetteville up but Martin knocked down both ends of a one-and-one with :03.3 on the clock to give the Hornets a 46-45 lead going into the final eight minutes.
Martin slashed the Fayetteville defense with a drive that drew all the inside defenders only to have him find Steen with a drop-off pass, adding to the lead. And when Martin drilled a triple to make it 51-45, Fayetteville needed a timeout.
When play resumed, Spencer Brown ended the Bulldogs’ long field-goal drought. The two teams tusseled for a while before Marvin Moody yanked down an offensive board, one of his team-high seven. He was fouled and went to the line where he converted once.
Carlson missed a 3 but Demaunte Youngblood rebounded. He lowered his shoulder to try to get to the rim but had to run over Hunt to get there. The offensive foul led the Hornets to a timeout with 1:55 to go.
Abrahamson had his guards working the triangle outside and Fayetteville was forced to foul. Hunt made two and, after Brown made one at the other end, Martin sank a pair and with 1:17 left in the game, the Hornets had their first double-digit lead of the game, 59-48.
Fayetteville was within 60-50 with :57.9 to go. Martin made a steal and headed the other way with Bulldogs on his trail. Ahead of the pack, Martin flew in for a dunk but the ball had been stripped from him on the way up. A foul was called but Martin, with a crowd around him, held onto the rim resulting in a technical foul, his fifth of the game.
Coming off the bench cold, senior Detavious Moore was selected to shoot Martin’s first throws and he proceeded to knock both of them down.
At the other end, Breathitt hit a free throw and, moments later, Willis delivered his third 3 of the game.
But the Hornets still led by 8 going into the final 40 seconds. Allen and Hunt converted key free throws after that to maintain the advantage as they send the top-ranked team back to northwest Arkansas surprised and disappointed.
Of course, the challenges are hardly over. Panther Arena figures to be packed tonight, just like it was in Cabot’s comeback victory over Springdale on Friday afternoon.
“What an advantage for them,” Abrahamson said regarding the Panthers playing at home. “We know the whole town will be here. We know there’s not going to be an empty seat. They’re going to be loud. They have a very supportive crowd and community and school.
“So we know what we’re getting into but what matters really is what goes on, on that court,” he asserted. “That’s what we’re going to focus on. I’m going to do my best to prepare them and our kids are going to do their best to out-play (Cabot).
“They’re hosting it,” he concluded, “but that’s out of our hands. All that other stuff is out of our control. But we do have a say in how we play.”
HORNETS 65, BULLDOGS 56
Score by quarters
BRYANT 11 15 20 19 — 65
Fayetteville 11 20 14 11 — 56
HORNETS (22-7) 65
Allen 5-7 3-6 17, Hunt 3-13 5-6 14, Steen 2-5 0-1 4, Washington 1-4 0-0 2, Martin 5-13 8-10 21, Walker 1-1 0-0 3, Moody 0-0 2-6 2, Moore 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 17-43 (40%) 20-31 (65%) 65.
BULLDOGS (24-4) 56
Brown 4-8 1-2 9, Youngblood 0-3 0-0 0, Willis 7-18 1-2 18, Breathitt 4-6 5-6 16, Carlson 3-8 1-2 8, Roth 1-4 1-2 3, Wymer 1-3 0-0 2, Barnes 0-0 0-0 0, Rainey 0-0 0-0 0, O’Leary 0-0 0-0 0, Hendrycy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 (40%) 9-14 (64%) 65.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 11-19 (Allen 4-4, Martin 3-9, Hunt 3-5, Walker 1-1), Fayetteville 7-21 (Willis 3-9, Breathitt 3-3, Carlson 1-4, Youngblood 0-2, Roth 0-2, Brown 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 8, Fayetteville 14. Rebounds: Bryant 11-19 30 (Moody 3-4 7, Hunt 2-4 6, Allen 1-4 5, Martin 0-3 3, Steen 1-1 2, Washington 1-1 2, Walker 1-0 1, team 2-2 4), Fayetteville 14-20 34 (Carlson 4-3 7, Breathitt 4-2 6, Willis 0-6 6, Wymer 2-3 5, Brown 0-3 3, Youngblood 1-2 3, Roth 1-0 1, Barnes 1-0 1, team 1-1 2). Team fouls: Bryant 16, Fayetteville 25. Fouled out: Bryant, Martin; Fayetteville, Youngblood, Carlson, Roth. Technical foul: Bryant, Martin (hanging on the rim).