LITTLE ROCK —Every athletic season is a process. Getting from point A to point B and being better at the end than you were at the start, individually and collectively. There are always ups and downs along the way, from quarter to quarter, game to game, week to week, month to month. You try to maximize one and minimize the other.
With all but one player back from a team that reached the Class 7A State Tournament last year, Bryant Hornets head coach Mike Abrahamson worked to get his team into the annual Jammin’ For Jackets basketball tournament this year. It was obviously an indication that he had high expectations for his group. The event is often as tough a tournament as there is in the state. Before the season, it looked like a good place to evaluate where the Hornets would be, like a six-weeks test, taking on some high caliber competition that could show the coach where his team was in relation to some of the best, expose their flaws so they could focus there efforts at improving in practice for the more important challenges ahead in conference play and State.
As it turned out, the Hornets appeared to be verifying those high expectations, starting the season 5-0. They then won their first game in the tournament at Little Rock Hall against McClellan on Thursday and the thought became, well, why couldn’t they make a bid to win this dang thing?
In the semifinals on Friday, Bryant took on the Little Rock Central Tigers and both teams did some remarkable things in a highly entertaining game. The Hornets overcame a slow start and, after fighting back to take a late lead, hit a wall and suffered their initial loss of the season.
So they had to settle for the third-place game against the J.A. Fair War Eagles of Little Rock on Saturday in the third game in as many days for both teams. Still stinging from Friday’s loss, the Hornets never caught fire and fell victim to Fair’s tough inside-outside combination of 6-7 post Kris Bankston and hot-shooting guard Jerrick Cole in a 73-51 loss.
“We’re exposed,” Abrahamson said after the game, “as to not being ready to compete at a high level. That doesn’t mean that we can’t get there or won’t get there but the biggest thing for us right now, that’s holding us back, is ourselves and our own mindset.
“It’s not the two losses,” he explained. “I mean I’d love to win but it’s not necessarily just that we lost. It’s how we played. That’s what is most important to me all the time. As much as it pains me to say this, I don’t think that we competed at a high level all the time. There were times that we did, obviously, but not all the time. We’ve got to do it all the time.
“I think we were a little bit intimidated by this tournament,” the coach related. “And, right now, it hurts. It’s painful to go through this right now but, hopefully, long term we look back and say we grew up and this caused us to. It’s either fight or flight. We’ve got to fight back against our own mentality and what our own minds are telling us. We’ve got some young men who have got to quit feeling sorry for themselves. We’ve got to dig in and get back to work.”
Bryant got off to a better start and pretty much stayed right with Fair the first half. The War Eagles built the lead to 11 in the first nine minutes of the second half. The Hornets whittled it back to 40-32 before Cole became unstoppable.
Over a four-minute span, he scored 14 points including four 3-point baskets, part of his 7-of-8 performance from the arc for the game. He would finish with 28 points.
During that burst, Fair’s 8-point edge expanded to 22, 58-36. Only a pair of baskets by Romen Martin interrupted.
A 3-pointer by Kaleb Turner got the Hornets back in gear, initiating an 11-1 surge. Martin fed Braylon Steen for a basket inside then Steen made a steal and a layup.
After a free throw by Fair’s Darius Jones, Steen scored again as he started to find ways to avoid the shot-blocking Bankston.
Martin answered a War Eagles miss with a running jumper to cap the rally. But the Hornets were still down 12, with 2:49 to play. A three-point play by Nick Jones, a free throw by Bankston, one final 3 by Cole, and a layup by Nick Jones had Fair up 68-47.
Bankston finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. Nick Jones had 11 points for the victors. Steen led Bryant with 10 points. Kevin Hunt, who drew particular defensive attention from Fair after scoring a combined 49 points over the previous two nights, was held to 9 points. Martin and Turner finished with 9 apiece as well.
Foul trouble continued to plague the Hornets. After Central shot 23 free throws to Bryant’s seven (including none at all in the second half) on Friday, the Hornets were whistled for 11 fouls in the first half against Fair, which was cited just three times. The result was that the War Eagles shot 15 free throws in the first half, 23 in the game, while the Hornets attempted just four free throws in the first half and just 12 in the game.
The Hornets led early in the contest. Triples by Hunt and Turner helped establish an 8-6 edge.
But, shades of things to come, Cole drilled back-to-back 3’s to put his team ahead and the War Eagles never trailed again.
The Hornets were within 15-14 after Steen and Hunt scored on either side of a free throw by Darius Jones. Fair, however, went on an 11-3 run to build a 26-17 lead by the final minute of the half.
Turner drove for a bucket and, just before the buzzer, Hunt fed Steen for a basket and Bryant was within 26-21 at the break.
It took the Hornets over eight minutes of the second half to manage another field goal, however. Free throws by Calvin Allen and Lowell Washington only interrupted a run that had the War Eagles back up by 11.
With 10:15 left in the game, Martin drained a 3 but, at the other end, Bankston drove for a dunk. When the War Eagles called a timeout at the 9:54 mark, they had hit 7 of 9 shots in the half while the Hornets had gone 2 for 8.
It was part of a scorching War Eagle performance in the second half. As a team, they hit 18 of 24 shots from the field (75 percent) including 6 of 7 on 3-pointers, mostly by Cole.
After the timeout, Washington scored to make it 40-32 then Cole went off to break the game open.
The Hornets return to action on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at Watson Chapel. It will be their final game before Christmas. On Monday, Dec. 28, they’ll travel to Fort Smith for another challenging tournament, the Coke Classic, where they’ll open against the defending Class 7A champion North Little Rock Charging Wildcats.
WAR EAGLES 73, HORNETS 51
Score by half
BRYANT 21 30 — 51
J.A. Fair 26 47 — 73
HORNETS (6-2) 51
C.Allen 0-3 2-2 2, Hunt 3-10 2-4 9, Steen 5-10 0-0 10, Washington 2-4 2-2 6, Martin 4-11 0-0 9, Moody 0-2 0-0 0, Turner 3-7 1-2 9, McIntosh 1-5 0-0 2, R.Allen 0-1 2-2 2, Chumley 0-1 0-0 0, Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Walker 0-1 0-0 0, Canada 1-1 0-0 2. Totals: 19-57 (33%) 9-12 (75%) 51.
WAR EAGLES (6-2) 73
N.Jones 5-11 1-1 11, Cole 10-16 1-2 28, Bryant 2-3 0-0 4, K.Langston 5-6 5-9 15, C.Jones 3-3 0-0 6, Sykes 0-1 0-2 0, D.Jones1-5 2-6 4, D.Bankston 0-1 0-0 0, Croom 1-1 0-0 3, Spencer 0-0 0-0 0, O’Neal 0-0 2-2 2, Christopher 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 27-47 (57%) 11-22 (50%) 73.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 4-20 (Turner 2-4, Martin 1-8, Hunt 1-3, C.Allen 0-1, McIntosh 0-1, R.Allen 0-1, Moore 0-1, Walker 0-1), J.A. Fair 8-12 (Cole 7-8, Croom 1-1, N.Jones 0-3). Turnovers: Bryant 14, J.A. Fair 11. Rebounds: Bryant 16-18 34 (Washington 4-3 7, Steen 1-5 6, C.Allen 1-3 4, Moody 2-1 3, R.Allen 1-1 2, McIntosh 1-1 2, Hunt 1-1 2, Martin 0-1 1, Turner 1-0 1, Canada 1-0 1, team 3-2 5), J.A. Fair 8-23 31 (K.Bangston 3-6 9, N.Jones 1-5 6, Cole 1-2 3, C.Jones 1-2 3, D.Jones 1-1 2, D.Bankston 1-1 2, Bryant 0-1 1, Croom 0-1 1, team 0-4 4). Team fouls: Bryant 17, J.A. Fair 9. Fouled out: Bryant, Moody.