File photos by Kevin Nagle and Rick Nation
Seeing that the Van Buren Pointers defense hadn’t quite settled as it got back from a disappointing empty trip to the free-throw line, Bryant Hornets senior Kevin Hunt attacked the basket. He dashed down the left side or the lane and double-clutched a shot up over the rim and in and, with :12 left, the Hornets had a 45-44 lead.
After a timeout, with :10.7 showing, Van Buren’s speedy point guard Jaylyn Dye was unable to efficiently weave his way through Bryant’s zone press. The best he could do was a forced 25-foot shot from in front of his team’s bench at the buzzer. It was an air ball so when Bryant’s Braylon Steen came down with the ball, the Hornets were celebrating a one-point victory in a first-place showdown among the 7A rivals in the 7A/6A-Central Conference.
“I called an isolation for him,” said Hornets head coach regarding the winning basket by Hunt. “Honestly, instead of slowing it down and setting it up, he saw they were kind of in transition mode and he just put his head down and got in there. And he has the freedom to do that. He’s earned that.
“That was better,” he noted. “I wanted them to get into our isolation play on the run and they were. He kept going and attacking. (Van Buren) is really good when they’re set. He took advantage of space that happens in transition.”
Regarding the defensive approach on the last possession of the game, Abrahamson said, “We knew they had to take it the length of the floor so we had a zone press. We tried to make them throw it from horizontally across the floor and they did a couple of times. We were just trying to take time off the clock and made it more difficult instead of just letting them get it in and run something.
“They run their sets so well,” he noted. “They’ve been running their stuff since the seventh grade. Those kids know it like the back of their hand. So we just wanted to get something out there that would take time and our kids executed that in crunch time.”
The win made the Hornets 13-3 on the season overall and 3-0 in the conference, tied with Siloam Springs for first place, and, more importantly 2-0 against 7A members of the league. Van Buren, now 12-4 overall, dropped to 2-1 and 1-1 in conference games.
Bryant won despite an 18-point, 10-rebound performance by Van Buren’s 6-10 forward Mitchell Smith, who has signed to play college basketball at the University of Missouri next year. Smith fouled out of the game with just over 30 seconds left.
Abrahamson used his front line depth to try to slow Smith as Braylon Steen, Lowell Washington, Marvin Moody and Kyle Sahr each took their turns guarding him when the Hornets weren’t in zone defense. Among those four guys, they used 13 fouls.
“They just kind of took their turns being physical with him, frustrating him and enduring some calls that went against them,” the coach explained.
“I’m just proud of our kids,” he related. “You know, you put together a game plan and you feel good about it. But this game, it was kind of like, ‘Man, (Van Buren) just doesn’t have a weakness.’ So, you hope you do the right thing.
“I’ve got to credit our kids,” Abrahamson continued. “It really wasn’t anything that I did as far as the game plan. I just thought our kids were tough and resilient. They’ve built good habits. We fouled a lot but it’s hard to guard that big kid. It was just, again, response after response against one of the best teams in our state. It’s a big win for us.”
Van Buren’s Beau Beckner took advantage of the emphasis on Smith to score 17 points and grab eight boards but Dye, who came into the game averaging over 16 points in the previous two league contests, was limited to 4 points with Hunt and Calvin Allen guarding him mostly in the man defense.
“I think putting them under constant pressure really helped us,” Abrahamson said. “We forced 21 turnovers. A lot of them seemed to be when they threw it out of bounds just because they were playing at a pace that they weren’t comfortable with.”
Neither team shot free throws particularly well. Van Buren was 13 of 24 at the line and Bryant was 14 of 27. But Hunt was 5 of 6 in the fourth quarter and Romen Martin converted twice in four attempts at crucial moments. Allen knocked down a pair as well during crunch time.
In fact, Allen’s free throws with 2:03 had the Hornets ahead 41-37, their largest advantage of the final period. (The largest lead for either team in the entire game was 5.)
Smith hit two free throws with 2:03 left then the Pointers surprised the Hornets by jumping into a press. A turnover led to a layup by Smith that had the game even at 41.
The Hornets missed a chance to take the lead and, in turn, Beckner took a feed from Dye for a layup that put the Pointers back on top. Martin had a chance to tie it at the free-throw line but missed the first shot. So when he hit the second, it just closed the game to 43-42.
A free throw by Smith put Van Buren back up by 2 with :48.6 showing. The Hornets ran a play to get Martin a look from the 3-point line in the corner. Though it missed, when Smith rebounded, Martin was there to steal the ball back. Smith committed his fifth foul on the play.
Again, Martin converted just once at the line to the Pointers had the ball and a 44-3 lead going into the final 30 seconds of the game. With :20 showing, Van Buren’s Hayden Salisbury was fouled. He missed both shots setting up Hunt’s game-winning dash to the other end.
Hunt and Martin each finished with 13 points. Washington added 8, Moody 6.
Smith opened the game ominously with a dunk but Detavious Moore answered with a 3 for the Hornets.
Van Buren held a 10-7 edge at the end of the first quarter. To start the second, Moody scored and was fouled though he was unable to complete the three-point play that would’ve tied the game.
At the other end, Dye managed his only field goal of the night, a 12-foot jumper. When Martin buried a 3, however, the game was tied at 12. An offensive-rebound bucket by Washington had the Hornets back on top.
Though it was tight the rest of the half, the Hornets didn’t relinquish the lead until Beckner hit a layup with :26 left. But Martin followed his own miss and scored with :02 to go, giving the Hornets a 19-18 halftime lead.
Salisbury nailed Van Buren’s only 3-pointer of the game to start the second half and, when Smith turned in a three-point play to push the lead to 24-19, Abrahamson took a timeout.
A strong drive by Washington right at Smith resulted in a basket over the top of the big man to get the Hornets back on track. Another triple from Martin had the game tied 24-24 with 5:14 left in the period.
Smith kept his team ahead until Hunt converted back-to-back drives. Washington made a steal and drove for a bucket and, after a back-and-forth flurry, Moody scored off a drive. With 1:31 left in the third quarter, Bryant had its largest lead at 34-29.
Two free throws by Beckner made it a 3-point game going into the fourth quarter.
Free throws, in fact, accounted for all of Bryant’s scoring in the final eight minutes except for Hunt’s game-winning bucket. Van Buren cut the lead to 1 a couple of times but couldn’t pull even until after Allen’s free throws in the late going.
“Our guys deserve all the credit,” Abrahamson stated. “They were resilient. They were tough. We’ve been through a lot of adversity this week that we’ll keep in-house. But we persevered. I told them, it was a tough week but we were tougher than the week. I’m proud of them.”
The Hornets play next at Russellville’s new arena on Tuesday, Jan. 19.
HORNETS 45, POINTERS 44
Score by quarters
Van Buren 10 8 13 13 — 44
BRYANT 7 12 15 11 — 45
POINTERS (11-5, 2-1, 1-1) 44
Dye 1-7 2-2 4, Salisbury 1-2 0-2 3, Barlow 1-3 0-2 2, Smith 5-5 8-14 18, Beckner 7-13 3-4 17, Davidson 0-2 0-0 0, Plunkett 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-32 (47%) 13-24 (54%) 44.
HORNETS (13-3, 3-0, 2-0) 45
Allen 0-0 2-2 2, Martin 4-10 3-8 13, Moore 1-6 0-0 3, Steen 0-1 0-0 0, Washington 4-6 0-1 8, Moody 2-5 2-7 6, Turner 0-0 0-0 0, Hunt 3-10 7-9 13, Sahr 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 14-38 (37%) 14-27 (52%) 45.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 3-15 (Martin 2-6, Moore 1-3, Hunt 0-3, Moody 0-2, Washington 0-1), Van Buren 1-10 (Salisbury 1-2, Dye 0-5, Davidson 0-2, Barlow 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 13, Van Buren 21. Rebounds: Bryant 6-16 22 (Washington 1-5 6, Martin 1-3 4, Moody 2-2 4, Steen 0-3 3, Hunt 0-3 3, Turner 1-0 1, team 1-0 1), Van Buren 4-24 28 (Smith 1-9 10, Beckner 2-6 8, Dye 0-6 6, Salisbury 0-2 2, Davidson 0-1 1, team 1-0 1). Team fouls: Bryant 21, Van Buren 22. Fouled out: Van Buren, Smith. Technical foul: Bryant, Moody.