Photos by Kevin Nagle
CONWAY — The hustle and havoc that has marked the play of the Bryant Hornets’ freshman team over the last two or three weeks was there on Wednesday night. It badgered the Lake Hamilton Wolves into 14 turnovers.
Now, that’s a lot by Lake Hamilton’s standards but not as many as the Hornets have been used to or would’ve wanted.
The Wolves’ ball-handling skills and decision making are what made them the number two seed for the tournament. Not the most physically talented team in the league, they won with execution and solid fundamentals.
And that held forth once again on Wednesday in the Central Arkansas Junior High Conference tournament semifinals as they held off the frantic efforts of the Hornets, 47-39, to advance to the tourney finals on Thursday against Conway White, which knocked off regular-season champion North Little Rock in the other semifinal.
Lake Hamilton was just a tough match-up for the Hornets this season. Their length on the wings made it difficult to get open looks from distance while still allowing them to pack in a zone against penetration.
Bryant got enough downhill action to make it a closer game than they’d played the previous two meetings this season but the Hornets were just 4 of 18 from 3-point range, missing all nine tries from long range in the first half when Lake Hamilton was able to establish a narrow lead.
Cory Nichols led the Hornets with 15 points. Darren Wallace had 9. Jordan Knox and James Billingsley added 6 each. Ivory Gilmore hit a 3.
The game was tied 6-6 early as Nichols had a pair of baskets and Knox scored on a coast-to-coast drive. But the Wolves pushed to an 11-6 lead by the end of the first quarter then got the first bucket of the second half.
The Hornets rallied, going to a trapping defense late in the quarter. A follow shot by Wallace made it 15-12 then he hit an eight-footer to trim the margin to 1. After Lake Hamilton scored, a three-point play by Nichols tied it at 17 with :32 left in the half.
But the Wolves’ hit a 3 to beat the buzzer and take a lead to intermission.
The Hornets came out of the locker room on fire and surged into the lead. Gilmore’s 3 was followed by a triple by Billingsley and a 23-20 advantage. A layup by Knox had the Hornets up 5 with 3:49 left in the third quarter.
The Wolves, however, responded with a 10-0 run as the Hornets cooled off considerably. Down 30-25, the Hornets closed out the quarter with a steal and layup by Nichols to make it a 3-point game.
The streaks continued in the fourth. The Wolves pushed the margin to 34-27 and had a chance to make it a larger lead only to have Knox make a steal and layup. Nichols swiped the ball and wound up at the free-throw line where he converted once to make it 34-30.
Another Wolves’ turnover led to a basket by Wallace, following his own miss.
Lake Hamilton took a timeout with 3:18 left, clinging to a 34-32 lead.
But the Wolves bowed up. A clutch 3 stemmed the tide when play resumed. The lead was bumped back to 8 before Wallace hit a 3 with 1:33 to go.
After a Lake Hamilton basket, Billingsley nailed a 3 and Bryant was within 43-39 with :35.6 left.
Hornets head coach Tyler Posey called a timeout but, to that point, his team had only committed three team fouls. They needed to get to seven before the Wolves would be shooting free throws in the bonus. To Lake Hamilton’s credit, it took until there was just :13.3 showing before they got there. The Wolves closed out the win with four free throws in those final seconds.
Bryant finishes the season 13-10 as a four-game win streak was snapped. The Hornets were definitely a much better team at the end that they were early in the season and, when all is said and done, that’s what coaches ask for.