Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SPORTS >> Cabot tops Benton for first place in tourney

Leader sportswriter

There are several added advantages to the new Panther Arena.

Perhaps one of those advantages for Cabot coach Jerry Bridges is the power of clairvoyance.

After all, he did correctly predict senior J.D. Brunett’s wild three-pointer outburst in the third quarter of the Panthers’ 59-34 clubbing of Benton in the championship game of the Cabot Pre-holiday Basketball Tournament on Saturday.

Brunett went to the locker room at halftime with six points off of three field goals, but finished the game with 21 points – 12 of which came from three pointers, and three more from a trip to the line after being fouled while trying to hit another in the third quarter to help the Panthers pull away even further from their comfortable 36-16 halftime lead.

“Yeah, it’s funny, we were walking down our hallway to go do our pregame there in the classroom,” Bridges said. “And J.D. made the comment, ‘I haven’t made a three here yet – I’m 0 for 10,’ or whatever. And I said, ‘Ah, J.D., I just look at that as you’re due, son. And he was due.

“When he makes one, we try to set him up real quick, because he can bust off three or four in a row before you blink, and that’s what happened.”

Brunett’s first three at the 6:02 mark of the third quarter put Cabot up 39-20 and his second just over a minute later made it 42-22. He struck a third time with 4:23 left in the third before drawing a foul on his next attempt. Brunett hit all three free throws to extend the lead to 48-23, and ended the quarter with another long three at the buzzer to give the Panthers an insurmountable 53-26 lead.

That left Cabot in need of four more points to activate the continuous clock for the sportsmanship/timing mercy rule, which it got from two inside baskets by senior guard Arthur West to give the Panthers a 57-26 lead with 7:11 left to play.

“Never in my dreams did I expect that,” Bridges said. “Benton’s a good team, and I think it’s more of a factor that we played one of our better games. I don’t think they played one of their better games, but I think we had a little to do with it.”

Cabot established its fast pace early, and also showed off its depth with two separate squads which split playing time essentially down the middle. The starting group of Brunett, West, Adam Rock, Sam Howe and Justin McMahan gave way to Bryan Shrum, Ryan Stafford, Michael Smith, Clayton Vaught and Josiah Wymer with 3:36 left to play in the first quarter, and again at the 3:35 mark of the second quarter.

The third-quarter switch happened in the middle of Brunett’s hot streak, which kept Stafford on the bench as Bridges allowed Brunett to finish out the frame.

“When we’re working in those groups, all 10 of them believe in defense,” Bridges said. “And we’re going to play tough on the defensive end, and I thought we did that.”

The first group pushed the Panther lead to 24-15 in the second quarter before the next group outscored Benton 12-1 during the remainder of the half. Benton kept itself in the game early with offensive rebounding and a number of second-chance shots before Cabot’s defensive pressure took away many first looks for the other Panther team.

“What we tried to do was stop their leak outs,” Bridges said. “They like to bust out. They want you to play fast, and what we tried stress to them before the game was to not get in a hurry. We want to attack their pressure, but look for the open spots to pass over, and let’s see if we can get a high-percentage shot.”

West added eight points for the Panthers.

Howe and McMahon led the way the night before with 10 points each as the Panthers clobbered Searcy 52-20.

The 6-0 Panthers have played impressive team basketball since the first game, and continue to show improvement.

“That’s just good chemistry,” Bridges said. “I mean, it’s nothing I’ve done. They’re just really blue-collar kids who aren’t afraid to work hard. They take their coaching and, man, I love them.

“I’m telling you, back in April, we weren’t a very good team. And they just kept working hard and kept getting better and better. Heck, we’re becoming a pretty decent team I think now.”