Photos by Scott Head – Echo Arkansas Photography
CABOT — It’s a big reason a school bids to host a State tournament. Not only do the players and coaches on the team get to sleep each night in their own beds without a bunch of travel on a school bus. But beyond comfort, there’s the promise of a big home crowd to help inspire the host team to big things.
It’s worked out for the Bryant girls soccer team, just last year, when they won their way to Fayetteville for the State finals, which they won for their first State championship. It’s helped the Bryant softball team in the past, winning at home on the way to the title game in Fayetteville for one of three consecutive championships.
Unfortunately, Bryant doesn’t have the kind of facility that’s required to host a State basketball tournament. The Hornets’ home gym was built in 1968 for a school about a third of the current size. You might squeeze in 1,500 people but nothing close to the 3,000 to 4,000 required by the Arkansas Activities Association to host.
Cabot, however, has just such an arena that, in fact, squeezed in no telling how many fans (5,000? More?) as part of a standing-room-only turnout on Saturday night when the Panthers played the Hornets in the State semifinals, a chance to play Bentonville in Hot Springs for the Class 7A crown on the line.
And by just about the margin a home crowd might provide, they held off the Hornets for a 50-47 win in overtime. It came despite a remarkable rally at the end of regulation for the Hornets, who were coming off a magnificent performance in an upset of top-ranked Fayetteville the night before.
In fact, Saturday’s game was Bryant’s third in three days, the second for Cabot in two. The Panthers had earned a first-round by as the top-seeded team from the 7A part of the 7A/6A-East Conference.
As sometimes happens to a road team, close plays went against the Hornets at crunch time as the extra period unfolded. As a result, after senior Kevin Hunt hit two free throws to give Bryant a 45-43 lead in the first few seconds of overtime, the Hornets weren’t able to score until the final seconds of the period.
Though the Panthers were just 3 of 7 from the free-throw line in the OT, those three turned a 47-45 edge into a 50-45 lead by the :10.3 mark as one unusual thing (for this Hornets team) after another went against them.
All after Bryant had erased an 8-point deficit over the final 2:48 of regulation then extended that to 10-0 with Hunt’s free throws.
“The kids kept fighting,” stated Bryant head coach Mike Abrahamson. “They showed some resiliency there. Tough game, tough game. But they fought back hard, clawed to just get anything. We struggled so bad offensively tonight. But they just kept scrapping, trying to find a way. Obviously, I was proud of them.”
Hunt, Calvin Allen and Romen Martin each scored 11 points for the Hornets. Braylon Steen had 10. But the Hornets were limited to just 25 field-goal attempts in the game. They were 4 of 10 from 3-point range and 19 of 23 at the line.
“Cabot’s defense was a lot of it — and their offense,” Abrahamson explained. “They really controlled the pace. We’ve been playing teams that won’t be as patient, maybe you could say. And then they’re very sound and solid defensively as well. We just struggled to put it in.
“Last night, we shot it so well, scored it so well,” he added. “Tonight, it was kind of the opposite. And that affected our kids’ psyche a little bit, especially in the first half.
Asked how the frenzied environment may have factored in, Abrahamson said, “It seemed like it did affect us. I don’t know how many but there were several plays where I’ve tried to train them to do one thing but they maybe did another thing and that may have been because of the environment.
“Cabot’s got great support,” he acknowledged. “We had great support tonight as well. It was loud (as few games are). It was different and, as much as we talk about it and try to prepare them, there’s really nothing like playing in it. I think it did, on some level, affect our play unfortunately.”
It didn’t help that Allen, the junior point guard who had scored 32 points collectively in the previous two State games, picked up two fouls before the first quarter was over. After sitting most of the rest of the half, his third quarter was interrupted by his third foul.
In the fourth quarter, he returned and despite picking up his fourth with 4:21 left, scored 8 of the Hornets’ 10 points in the period including the game-tying free throws with :37 left.
“That hurt bad,” Abrahamson said of the early foul trouble. “We need him out there. That was probably one of our struggles offensively, having him not out there to make the plays that he’s been making. He’s been really good, particularly lately. He had a good year.”
The Hornets trailed 43-35 with 2:48 left and it didn’t look promising. The Cabot crowd was increasing the decibel levels. The Panthers had a chance to increase their margin but, for once, weren’t patient, perhaps pushed by the cheers senior Hunter Southerland rushed an ill-advised 3-point try that rimmed out.
With 2:19 left, Steen hauled down the carom off a teammate’s miss and was fouled. He converted both shots to trim the lead to 6.
And when the Hornets’ scrambling defense forced a turnover, you could see a little panic in the players and the fans. That only increased after Lowell Washington was fouled and, though he missed both shots, somehow Allen, the smallest player on the court was knocked aside under the basket by a Cabot rebounder. The foul was called and Allen went to the line and drained both shots to cut the margin to 4.
Steen then made a steal and, after a timeout by the Hornets, Allen made a sparkling drive into the Cabot trees and scored. With 1:22 left, Bryant had cut the margin to 43-41.
The Panthers took a timeout only to have the Hornets turn them over again, leading to Allen’s trip to the line to tie it.
Cabot decided to play for one shot but point guard Bobby Joe Duncan’s contested jumper from the elbow missed and overtime was the result.
In the extra period, Hunt’s free throws were answered by a drive to the hoop by 6-8 Matt Stanley. He scored and was fouled but the score remained 45-45 when he couldn’t convert the free throw.
Given the chance to regain the lead, the Hornets got the ball to the baseline where Steen faked a shot and started to drive. There was contact and the call went against the Hornets, a charge gave Cabot the chance to gain the upper hand.
A stickback by Southerland did the trick with 1:30 left.
“That’s one of those calls I probably saw a different way,” Abrahamson admitted regarding the charge/block call. “I can see why they called it. I just — it was a good play by the kid from Cabot. I don’t fault Braylon though. Give the kid from Cabot all the credit.
“It was huge,” he allowed. “It was a game-changer. We talk about charges being momentum changers all the time. It worked against us this time.”
But the Hornets still had a chance to knot it up. In the front court, the ball was knocked out of bounds so Bryant was set to inbounds on its own baseline. Cabot made it tough on the Hornets to get it in but bad luck played in as well. Martin was just breaking open near the right sideline but fell down (tripped?)
As a result, the Hornets couldn’t get it in and Cabot gained possession with a lead. Down 2, the Hornets just continued to play their hustling trap out of their man defense, hoping to duplicate the struggles the Panthers had in the late stages of regulation.
But, with :37.8 to go, Southerland was fouled. He converted both shots to give Cabot a two-score advantage.
Again, Cabot pressured. The Hornets had to use their last timeout to avoid another five-second call. But when play returned, they still couldn’t get it in and Cabot regained possession.
The Hornets had a life, though, when Jarrod Barnes missed two free throws with :23.5 showing. At the other end, the Hornets ran a play to get an open look from the corner for their sharp-shooter Martin. As good as his shot looked, it refused to go in.
A free throw by Duncan with :10.3 showing made it 50-45. Steen’s stickback in the final seconds set the ultimate score.
Duncan finished with 12 points to lead the Panthers. Logan Gilbertson, a 6-5 junior, came off the bench to add 10.
Cabot led most of the first half after overcoming an early 6-3 deficit. It was 9-6 at the first break. Two minutes into the second quarter, the Panthers were up 15-8.
After a timeout, the Hornets answered. Martin hit two free throws and, after combining with Hunt on a steal, canned a pull-up jumper, cutting the lead to 3. Two free throws by Steen made it 15-14.
Southerland hit a 3 but Washington scored inside to make it 18-16. Spencer Brown missed a 3-point try in response for the Panthers. But when the Hornets turned it over in the final seconds, Gilbertson beat the buzzer with a 3, making it 21-16 at the break.
The lead grew to as much as 8 in the third quarter but a clutch 3 from Hunt turned the tide. Martin knocked down a pair of free throws and, after Duncan scored, Hunt drilled another triple and Steen followed with a jumper from the corner off a feed from Martin to tie the game 30-30.
Gilbertson got a reverse layup to fall but when Martin answered with a 3, the Hornets had the lead 33-32.
Again, the Panthers held for the last shot only to have Duncan miss. Steen, who rebounded the miss, tried to head back the other way in traffic but the ball got loose as Cabot players swatted at it and his arm. Gilbertson picked up the ball and launched a 3 from the top of the key that found the mark at the buzzer, making it 35-33, Cabot, going into the fourth quarter.
By scoring the first 6 points of the final period, the Panthers pushed the lead to 41-33. Allen and Duncan traded free throws and it was 43-35 before the Hornets’ furious rally to tie.
Cabot advances to the State title game in Hot Springs, facing Bentonville and Kentucky signee Malik Monk.
As for the Hornets, they finish the season 22-8.
“The season overall was good, 22 wins, beat several opponents that maybe Bryant hadn’t beaten in a while or wouldn’t normally beat,” Abrahamson said. “This hurts right now but, yes, it was a good season and these guys were fun to coach. We’ll try to do better next year. We want to go a little further.”
With four starters returning and several contributing reserves as well, going “a little further” may indeed be the result. But there’s no doubt that the 2016 Bryant Hornets will be remembered as something special.
And someday perhaps, when old sports writers have hit the final deadline and young coaches have become gray-haired sages, maybe there will be a big, beautiful arena in Bryant. And, perhaps, the Hornets will host a State tourney. And they’ll battle to the semifinals just like they did way back in 2016. Half the town will come out to fill the arena and there will only be room to stand. The cheering will tax the eardrums and take a toll on the opponents.
The Hornets? Maybe they’ll benefit from the excitement and wind up with that extra 3 points at the end and earn a trip to the finals.
Come to think of it, they’ll probably make the finals — maybe a few times — before that new arena becomes reality.
So it goes.
PANTHERS 50, HORNETS 47, OT
Score by quarters
BRYANT 6 10 17 10 4 — 47
Cabot 9 12 14 8 7 — 50
HORNETS (22-8) 47
Allen 1-2 9-11 11, Hunt 3-7 2-2 11, Steen 3-4 4-4 10, Washington 2-4 0-2 4, Martin 3-6 4-4 11, Moody 0-1 0-0 0, Walker 0-0 0-0 0, Sahr 0-1 0-0 0, Turner 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 12-25 (48%) 19-23 (83%) 47.
PANTHERS (20-9) 50
Duncan 3-8 5-6 12, Brown 0-5 3-3 3, Rowe 3-6 0-1 6, Southerland 3-6 2-2 9, Stanley 3-4 2-5 8, Gilbertson 4-5 0-0 10, Casteel 1-1 0-0 2, Barnes 0-5 0-2 0. Totals 17-40 (43%) 12- 17 (71%) 50.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 4-10 (Hunt 3-5, Martin 1-4, Allen 0-1), Cabot 4-12 (Gilbertson 2-2, Southerland 1-4, Duncan 1-1, Brown 0-2, Barnes 0-2, Rowe 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 14, Cabot 8. Rebounds: Bryant 3-20 23 (Steen 2-6 8, Washington 1-4 5, Martin 0-3 3, Moody 0-2 2, Allen 0-2 2, Hunt 0-2 2, team 0-1 1), Cabot 8-9 17 (Rowe 3-1 4, Stanley 2-2 4, Duncan 0-3 3, Southerland 2-1 3, Brown 0-1 1, Gilbertson 1-0 1, Casteel 0-1 1). Team fouls: Bryant 19, Cabot 18.