SPRINGDALE — Trying to become the first Bryant girls team since 1995-96 to win more than one game at a State basketball tournament, the Lady Hornets ran into the co-champions of the 7A/6A-East Conference, a 24-3 Little Rock Central Lady Tigers team on Sunday afternoon.
Saturday’s 56-49 overtime victory over the Bentonville Lady Tigers was the first State tourney win for a Lady Hornets team since the 2009-10 season (a 58-54 win over Fort Smith Northside) and just the fourth time since that ’95-‘96 season (2002-03 over Jonesboro, 59-53, and 1998-99 over Fayetteville, 57-46).
But the landmark double evaded the Lady Hornets as Central showed why it won the 7A/6A-Central Conference’s top seed. Though they struggled to shake Bryant, the Lady Tigers never trailed and pulled away late for a 56-41 win to advance to the semifinals on Monday against Fayetteville.
The Lady Tigers only dressed out 11 players but six of them were between 5’9” and 6’2”. And the only senior was 5’5” guard Kamry Allen, who could scoot. At times, the Lady Hornets were playing five players under 5’7”.
“Their strength is something that we have struggled with all year, which is their size and length,” noted Lady Hornets coach Brad Matthews. “That’s something we just don’t have. So we needed to be aggressive. But Central’s really athletic as well. And they’re really skilled and they’re a really good team.”
Not too long ago, Bryant and Central played in the same conference — and they will again in two years. The Lady Hornets usually got the best of the Lady Tigers back in the day but the current team is the tallest and most talented any Bryant team faced.
But the Lady Hornets did a good job of staying in the game through most of the first half, by attacking Central’s defense and drawing fouls. For the game, Bryant was 18 of 25 from the line including 13 of 16 in the first half.
Those opportunities dried up in the third quarter — the Lady Hornets shot just two. Though they went 4 of 7 in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t enough.
Still, they outscored the Lady Tigers in the third, whittling a 33-19 deficit at the half to 41-31 going into the fourth quarter.
In the first three periods, Central’s ‘bigs’ played a lot on the perimeter on offense. The Lady Tigers’ went 4 for 11 from 3-point range. They crashed the boards and used their size there but it was their trapping defense that slowed down the Lady Hornets in the second quarter when they hit 1 of 8 field goal attempts.
A 14-3 run to start the second quarter turned Central’s 15-12 lead at the end of the first period into a 29-15 lead with two minutes left in the half.
“When we executed, I felt like we were able to get out and get some good looks,” Matthews said. “That’s when we started picking up some team fouls on them. That’s what we do well. That’s what we did well yesterday against Bentonville. That’s what we did well today. We just didn’t do near well enough.
“I thought we got off to a decent start offensively then, for whatever reason, we got back on our heels and we were never really in the flow on offense,” he mentioned. “Their athleticism and length made us play uncomfortable. That’s what they do.
“I did not think that we were as assertively aggressive as we needed to be in the second and midway through the third,” the coach stated. “I thought we had a run in us. I thought if we could get it to 5 or 6 or 7 then, it’s a State Tournament, close game, crazy stuff happens. But we never could get in a rhythm enough to get a flow. I didn’t do a good job of getting them good looks.”
It didn’t help that Otey, Bryant’s leading scorer on the year including 23 points against Bentonville, got into early foul trouble. She picked up her second and came out of the game with just over two minutes left in the first quarter.
Lauren Carroll, however, scored 10 of her team-high 16 points in the first half including 6 of 8 free throws.
It was 12-7 when Otey went to the bench. Central’s Jada Perry hit a 3 but Carroll drove for a short jumper then Raija Todd fired in a 3 to cut it to 15-12.
Central’s second-quarter run was interrupted only by free throws by Carroll and Kendall Rogers. When the lead got to double digits at 24-13, Matthews brought Otey back in.
Bre’Amber Scott, who led Central with 14 points and eight rebounds, scored off the offensive glass to make it 26-14. The two teams scrambled for a while then Otey picked up her third foul trying to rebound a teammate’s miss.
Bryant’s only field goal of the quarter came on an inbounds pass to Rachel Miller, who was stopped initially but made a nice pivot and jump hook with 1:00 left. But Sydni Williams scored off a teammate’s miss at the other end and it was 33-19 at the half.
Carroll got Bryant’s rally started. Orr and Otey then traded buckets with Otey’s including a 3. Scott hit a free throw then drove for a layup off a Bryant turnover to push it back to 40-26. But Otey drilled her second triple and, after a free throw by Alexsis Brown — it looked like Bryant’s Emily Ridgell had drawn a charge but the call didn’t go her way — Otey sank two at the line cutting the margin to 10 going into the fourth quarter.
Kiara Williams, a 6’ forward who hadn’t scored in the game up that point, asserted herself at the start of the fourth quarter. Short drives to the basket produced a pair of three-point opportunities, one she completed, the other she didn’t.
That pushed the lead to 15. Todd and Williams traded free throws then Ridgell hit a layup off a Central turnover to make it 48-35 with 6:06 left.
But 13 was as close as the Lady Hornets could get. Central increased the lead to as much as 17. Bryant cut it back to 13 on free throws by Carroll and a driving layup off a steal by Otey with 2:28 to go. But that’s as close as they could get.
Bryant finishes the season 15-13, the most wins for a Lady Hornets team since the 15 posted by the 2010-11 squad.
“I told them in the locker room, there’s 32 teams in 7A; 31 of them are going to feel like we are,” Matthews related. “We won the Saline County Shootout (over Benton). We got the trophy. We beat a No. 1 or No. 2 ranked Greenwood team. We won a game in the State Tournament for the first time in a while.
“There’s some positive things here,” he stated. “We had a really good senior class (Otey, Carroll, Maddie Baxter and Cayla McDowell). I appreciate their effort and their dedication over the last two or three years.
“Thirty-one teams end on a negative. Ours came today.”
LADY TIGERS 56, LADY HORNETS 41
Score by quarter
BRYANT 12 7 12 10 — 41
LR Central 15 18 8 15 — 56
LADY HORNETS (15-13) 41
Otey 3-6 4-5 12, Carroll 4-10 8-10 16, Baxter 0-2 0-0 0, Todd 1-5 5-6 8, Miller 1-1 0-0 2, Ridgell 1-4 0-2 2, McDowell 0-0 0-0 0, Rogers 0-0 1-2 1, Martin 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 10-29 (34%) 18-25 (72%) 41.
LADY TIGERS (25-3) 56
Orr 5-12 2-3 6, Ready 2-7 2-3 6, Scott 5-7 3-4 14, K.Williams 2-3 3-4 7, Allen 2-5 0-0 6, Brown 3-5 1-3 7, Perry 1-2 0-0 3, S.Williams 1-2 0-1 2, Jackson 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-45 (47%) 10-17 (59%) 56.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 3-8 (Otey 2-3, Todd 1-2, Ridgell 0-2, Carroll 0-1), LR Central 4-14 (Allen 2-4, Scott 1-2, Perry 1-2, Orr 0-3, Ready 0-1, Brown 0-1, Jackson 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 14, LR Central 13. Rebounds: Bryant 7-16 23 (Otey 2-6 8, Carroll 0-3 3, Miller 1-2 3, Ridgell 1-2 3, Todd 0-1 1, team 1-2 3), LR Central 11-16 27 (Scott 3-5 8, Orr 2-4 6, S.Williams 1-2 3, K.Williams 1-1 2, Allen 1-0 1, Ready 0-1 1, Brown 0-1 1, team 3-2 5). Team fouls: Bryant 15, LR Central 19.