For more photos from this event by Kevin Nagle, go here
BENTON — Winners of seven in a row and 10 of their last 11, the Lake Hamilton Lady Wolves came into Thursday night’s Central Arkansas Junior High Conference Tournament semifinal as hot as any team in the league. That streak included the only conference loss of the campaign by the Conway Blue Lady Cats.
But they found themselves faced with the Bryant Lady Hornets, the lone team in the league they had not been able to beat. The Lady Hornets had beaten them three times this season, 41-33 and 34-24 in conference games and 38-29 in the finals of Lake Hamilton’s own Christmas tournament.
It stood to reason that the Lady Wolves would improve as the season went along — and they wound up as the No. 2 seed in the tournament — since they started with a very young team. In fact, in Thursday’s semifinal, they started one freshman, two eighth graders and two seventh graders. And the first two off the bench were eighth graders.
They’re actually a year away, you might say.
But they’ll be playing for a conference championship on Saturday in a rematch with Conway Blue after surviving the Lady Hornets, 41-38, on Thursday at Benton Arena.
The setback ended Bryant’s season with a 20-6 record despite more than its share of adversity that included season-ending injuries around the halfway point to their two tallest players, McKenzie Muse and Mekeycia Baker, plus another to guard Maddie Thompson.
If the post play of their opponents wasn’t pretty strong, the Lady Hornets managed to make up for those losses with quick, active defense. But, in 6-foot eighth grader Tracey Bershers, the Lady Wolves had a strong presence inside.
A forward relegated to playing a lot of post defense, Ivory Russ did a good job of attacking the Lake Hamilton zone with Bershers at its core. Celena Martin also played well inside though she was undersized in comparison to the Lady Wolves. Kinley Oholendt, though she gave up size as well, held her own on defense much of the time against Bershers but the Lake Hamilton post player finished with a game-high 14 points and 11 rebounds.
The end of the nip-and-tuck game was a bit excruciating for the Lady Hornets. A basket by Martin with 1:35 left in the game had them within a point of the Lady Wolves, 39-38.
Bershers, who had hit a 3-pointer earlier, helped out the Bryant cause when she missed a 3 at that point.
Bryant coach Nathan Castaldi took a timeout to try to set up a play for a go-ahead basket. Russ drove inside but had her shot blocked by Bershers. The Lady Hornets retained possession as the ball went out of bounds of Bershers. And, on the inbounds play, Russ got it again and drove to the rack only to miss in traffic. It was a physical confrontation but no foul was called.
It took until just :18.7 showed on the clock. Ginny Higganbotham, a seventh-grade guard, was fouled. She coolly knocked down both ends of the one-and-one to make it a 3-point game.
With a chance to tie, the Lady Hornets’ Lexi Taylor tried a 3 from the left wing. Under the duress of the defense flying at her, Taylor’s shot missed and Lake Hamilton rebounded just before time ran out.
“A play here, a play there; an offensive rebound here or the ball goes off our foot and goes out of bounds — the ball bounced their way tonight,” said Castaldi. “When a game comes down to 3 points, when you look back you can see a lot of things.
“We competed hard,” he added. “We played hard. We just ran out of gas there at the end.
“Still, I thought we had the momentum,” the coach concluded. “Everything’s going our way. If we play another minute, we probably pull that one out.”
The Lady Hornets led most of the first half. They got out to a 7-0 start with vintage full-court pressure. Tierra Trotter hit a 5-footer to cap a fastbreak. Martin followed up with a steal and a trip to the line for a pair of free throws. Thefts by Tyianna Robinson and Martin both went by the boards but Russ gathered in an offensive rebound and, off a feed from Oholendt, Trotter nailed a 3.
Lake Hamilton got going with a stickback by freshman Meg Harrison. The lead was trimmed to 7-5 but Taylor scored off an inbounds play and Martin got inside for a bucket off a turnover. It was 11-6 going into the second stanza.
A free throw by Harrison and an offensive-rebound basket by Bershers off the missed second shot trimmed the margin to 2. But Trotter canned another triple. Bershers and Martin traded baskets to make it 16-11 going into the final four minutes of the half.
Unfortunately for the Lady Hornets, the only point they could manage the rest of the half was a free throw by Russ in the final minute. Sparked by 3’s from Tia Mullenix and Bershers, the Lady Wolves surged to take the lead. They were up 21-17 at the half.
Lake Hamilton’s largest edge was 26-19 midway through the third quarter. Russ led a charge as the Lady Hornets whittled the lead down to 26-23. It was 28-25 going into the final six minutes.
Russ posted up for a basket to open the final period, trimming the lead to 1. Bershers added a pair of free throws but then Taylor knocked down a game-tying 3 with 4:46 left.
After a Bryant timeout, Aryn Hughes scored on an inbounds play to snap the tie for the Lady Wolves only to have Russ drive to a layup to make it 32-32.
The Lady Hornets forced a turnover and Robinson attacked the basket only to have her shot rejected. So, seventh-grader Hayley Wyrick broke the tie only to have Russ knock it up with a layup with 3:09 to play.
Breshers hit a free throw and the Hornets had a chance to gain the upper hand only to have a turnover occur. Wyrick drove for a layup and, though it was tight, the Lady Hornets never drew even nor took the lead the rest of the way.
Still, with heroic play by Martin who scored back-to-back baskets to cut it to 1, Bryant kept hope alive going into the final minute.
After the game, Castaldi reflected on the season and the adversity the team endured.
“We talked about that a lot, how we handle adversity truly defines who we are, and the girls did a great job all year, handling adversity in games, out of games and things like that,” he related. “And that’ll carry them far once they get into high school and in life in general. So I’m really proud of them.”
LADY WOLVES 41, LADY HORNETS 38
Score by quarters
BRYANT 11 6 8 13 — 38
Lake Hamilton 6 15 7 13 — 41
LADY HORNETS 38
Trotter 4-12 0-0 10, Martin 4-7 2-5 10, Oholendt 0-2 0-0 0, Robinson 0-8 0-0 0, Russ 4-8 4-6 12, Taylor 2-5 1-2 6, Allen 0-0 0-0 0, Scifres 0-0 0-0 0, Deaton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 14-42 7-13 38.
LADY WOLVES 41
Higginbotham 1-3 3-6 5, Wyrick 3-8 4-4 10, Thornton 0-1 1-2 1, Bershers 5-11 3-6 14, Harrison 2-2 2-4 6, Mullenix 1-1 0-0 3, Hughes 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 13-27 13-22 41.
Three-point field goals: Bryant 3-14 (Trotter 2-9, Taylor 1-2, Robinson 0-3), Lake Hamilton 2-4 (Bershers 1-2, Mullenix 1-1, Wyrick 0-1). Turnovers: Bryant 10, Lake Hamilton 23. Rebounds: Bryant 8-10 18 (Martin 2-4 6, Robinson 1-2 3, Trotter 1-1 2, Allen 1-1 2, Russ 1-0 1, Taylor 1-0 1, team 1-2 3), Lake Hamilton 10-22 32 (Bershers 4-7 11, Thornton 0-6 6, Higginbotham 2-2 4, Wyrick 2-2 4, Harrison 1-1 2, Mullinex 0-2 2, team 1-2 3). Team fouls: Bryant 16, Lake Hamilton 10. Fouled out: Bryant, Trotter; Lake Hamilton, Thornton.