Photos courtesy of Paul Dotson
BENTONVILLE — As usual, Bryant Hornets head basketball coach Mike Abrahamson was praising his team’s opponent after the State Tournament semifinal game on Saturday at Wolverine Arena on the campus of Bentonville West High School.
“They’re hard to guard,” he said of the Bentonville Tigers. “They do so many actions and they move well offensively, not only move the ball but move their bodies. You have to just constantly re-position yourself on defense. So, we were trying to adjust going into this game but also throughout the game.
“They’ve got a really good team,” he emphasized. “They’re really well coached. They’ve got two studs. Then they’ve got a bunch of people that can shoot around them.”
But, Coach, your team just whipped that “really good team” 71-49 in their backyard and, for the first time since 1983, the Bryant Hornets are going to play for a State basketball title in Hot Springs next weekend. What about that?
“Well, we beat them because we’ve got studs,” he acknowledged, suppressing a smile. “We’ve got some good players. We have some special kids.”
It was the third time since Abrahamson took over the program in 2010 that one of his Hornets teams made the State semifinals. It’s the first time, they’ve been able to advance.
Of course, that’s not the only history this team has made. They earned the first conference championship for a Bryant boys’ team since 1989, a first-round bye at State and a No. 1-ranking in Class 6A.
And, in a year in which Bryant captured its first football State title, the basketball team is now on the cusp of their own State crown.
They got there by winning their 17thconsecutive game and 21stin the last 22 games. Their lone setback during that run was a 47-42 loss at home to Fort Smith Northside on Jan. 4, in their 6A-Central Conference opener, which was just days after Bryant had edged Northside, 50-48, in the semifinals of the Coke Classic at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Later in conference action, Bryant went to Northside and came away with a 46-34 victory.
After battling past Bentonville West, 52-47 on Wednesday, Fayetteville 63-58 on Friday, and Conway, 64-52 on Saturday, Northside’s Grizzlies will play in their third straight State final as they take on the Hornets for the fourth time this season.
The Griz were the No. 4 seed from the Central Conference but, obviously, they know how to win at State.
In Bryant’s loss to Northside to start league play, the Hornets were without all-State junior Khalen Robinson. Against Bentonville, Robinson scorched the nets for 34 points, a point shy of his career-high of 35 set earlier this season. It’s his third 30-plus night of the campaign.
Robinson was so efficient that he made 12 of 13 shots from the field including all five 3-point attempts. He was 5 of 6 at the free-throw line. He didn’t miss a shot from the field until the 5:15 mark of the fourth quarter. By then he’d already fired in 26 points.
“Khalen’s special,” acknowledged Abrahamson. “That’s the only way to put it. He’s special. He’s hard to stop because he can do so many things. He’s seen so many types of defenses that — he’s just willing to do whatever we need him to do. He’s willing to be patient. He doesn’t panic when people are trying to game-plan for him.”
While the State championship game experience will be new for most of the Hornets, for Robinson and fellow junior Treylon Payne, it’s a return performance. Both played as freshmen on the Little Rock Episcopal Collegiate 3A State title team in 2017. In fact, Robinson, as a frosh, was named tournament MVP. He and Payne both scored 18 in the title game victory over Tuckerman.
But 3A is hardly 6A.
“It’s a great feeling,” Robinson said about going to the finals at Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs.
Asked about the game plan going into Saturday’s semifinal, he added, “Just keep playing the same way we have all season, not changing anything, just trying to play better than the way they (Bentonville) played.
“We’re not changing the way we do things, just playing with confidence and hoping we come out with a W, staying together,” he related.
Payne added 18 points including four 3’s while Cameron Hunter added 11, Rodney Lambert 6 and Catrell Wallace 2. Hunter also had a game-high eight rebounds.
Bentonville, the No. 2 seed behind Fayetteville from the 6A-West, finished the season 21-8. The Tigers were paced by 6-6 senior Michael Shanks with 20 points. Brayden Freeman had 14 and Connor Deffebaugh 10.
The Hornets again played great defense, sticking to their man-to-man throughout, though occasionally extending it full-court. They’re help-defense was, at times, phenomenal. The Tigers had to work for most everything they got.
“We did,” Abrahamson said. “But sometimes we helped too much, and they got open 3’s.”
The Tigers were 5 of 21 from 3-point land. Bryant hit 9 of 18 beyond the arc. Robinson’s five included one at the end of the first two quarters. In the final seconds of the first, he snapped a 13-13 tie. In the final moments of the half, the Hornets again got it to him and cleared away to let him go one-on-one. Once more, he beat the buzzer with a 3 to extend the Hornets’ lead to 36-25.
“My coach and my teammates, they trust me with the ball, so I try not to let them down,” Robinson said.
Bryant got out to an 8-2 lead to start the game with Robinson and Payne knocking down 3’s. Sparked by Freeman, the Tigers surged to take an 11-8 lead. After Abrahamson took a timeout with 2:53 left in the quarter, the Hornets responded. Hunter drove for a basket and Robinson fed Payne for another triple to put them back on top.
After Shanks tied it with a base-line jay, Robinson closed out the scoring.
Freeman hit a 3 to start the second quarter, tying it at 16 but when Robinson canned a short jumper and followed up with a 3, Bryant was ahead for good.
The lead was just 23-21 going into the final five minutes of the half. The Hornets scored the next 8 points on a 3 by Robinson, a basket inside by Hunter and free throws by Lambert.
With 2:22 left in the half, Bryant’s lead was 31-21.
The Hornets expanded their 11-point halftime edge early in the third quarter. Lambert scored off a drive. A little later, Hunter followed his own miss inside for a basket to make it 40-25.
The Tigers started trying to muscle up on the Hornets, hoping to affect their focus. With 5:18 to go, Hunter and the Bentonville point guard were called for dual technical fouls — though they should’ve probably both been common fouls as they jostled and talked on their way up the floor. As a result, Robinson hit a free throw.
The teams traded baskets and when Payne buried another 3 off a dish from Lambert, Bryant held a 48-32 advantage.
But Shanks scored 5 quick points and Deffebaugh ended the quarter with a three-point play, avoiding a charge call as he drove through Lambert to score.
The Tigers were within 48-40 with that little surge. But that Deffebaugh field goal was to be their last. They were held to 9 down the stretch, all from the free-throw line.
Hunter hit a jumper in the lane to start the fourth. Payne made a steal and layup and Robinson added two free throws to push the margin back to 14.
Bentonville was never that close again.
The Hornets built the lead up to 17 as they began to spread the floor to open driving lanes.
With Shanks converting 8 of 9 free throws along the way, the Tigers trimmed the lead down to 13 again.
But any momentum they were building was dashed when Hunter came through with a three-point play off a driving hook.
The Hornets finished on a 9-0 burst then celebrated in front of their faithful following behind the bench then in the hallway and the locker room.
In reflection, Abrahamson said soberly, “No matter what happens, we’ve got a few practices left, got one more game to spend together. We’ll always be part of the program, always a part of the family but this year, this team, we’ve got one game left, one week left. So, we just want to make the most of it.”
The day and time of the final will likely be announced Monday.
HORNETS 71, TIGERS 49
Score by quarters
Bentonville 13 12 15 9 — 49
BRYANT 16 20 12 23 — 71
TIGERS (21-8) 49
Spencer 1-4 0-0 3, Deffebaugh 2-6 5-7 10, Shanks 5-9 9-10 20, Freeman 6-15 0-0 14, Price 1-1 0-0 2, Simmons 0-3 0-0 0, J.Smith 0-1 0-0 0, S.Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Roehl 0-0 0-0 0, Bell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals:15-39 (38%) 14-17 (82%) 49.
HORNETS (24-4) 71
Payne 5-10 4-4 18, Kl.Robinson 12-13 5-6 34, Lambert 1-10 4-6 6, Hunter 5-9 1-1 11, Wallace 1-1 0-0 2, Hall 0-0 0-0 0, Jenkins 0-1 0-2 0, Ks.Robinson 0-0 0-0 0, Hefley 0-0 0-0 0, Adams 0-1 0-0 0. Totals:24-45 (53%) 14-19 (74%) 71.
Three-point field goals:Bryant 9-18 (Kl.Robinson 5-5, Payne 4-8, Lambert 0-3, Jenkins 0-1, Adams 0-1), Bentonville 5-21 (Freeman 2-7, Deffebaugh 1-4, Spencer 1-3, Shanks 1-3, Simmons 0-3, J.Smith 0-1). Turnovers:Bryant 11, Bentonville 16. Rebounds:Bryant 7-18 25 (Hunter 2-6 8, Kl.Robinson 2-4 6, Payne 1-3 4, Lambert 0-2 2, Wallace 1-1 2, team 1-2 3), Bentonville 14-16 30 (Shanks 2-4 6, Freeman 0-3 3, Price 0-3 3, Spencer 0-3 3, Deffebaugh 1-0 1, Simmons 1-0 1, team 0-3 3). Team fouls:Bryant 14, Bentonville 14. Technical fouls:Bryant, Hunter; Bentonville Spencer.