Tuesday, February 28, 2012

SPORTS >> Can home court send Panthers to Summit?

Leader sports editor

Home court advantage belongs to the Cabot Lady Panthers as they play host to the 7A state tournament this week at the new Panther Arena.

The tournament starts today at 1 p.m. when Springdale Har-Ber and West Memphis take to the court in the first girls’ game, but the Lady Panthers will not see action until Thursday when they take on the winner of that game.

The Lady Panthers (24-5 overall) earned the No. 1 seed out of the 7A Central Conference with a 13-1 record that included a monumental victory over North Little Rock in early February.

The Lady Charging Wildcats were the last team to defeat Cabot a month before the Lady Panthers rolled off 11 straight wins to close out the regular season.

Senior leadership has carried the Lady Panthers through their successful run with a group that includes University of Arkansas signee Melissa Wolff, Sydney Wacker and Laci Boyett, while juniors Elliot Taylor and Jaylin Bridges have also made big contributions from their starting positions.

Taylor has played much of the season with a broken nose, but continues to be among the team leaders in scoring and rebounding.

Wolff continues to showcase her talents on both offense and defense while Boyett earned a reputation as one of the more hard-nosed players in Class 7A.

According to Boyett, the team began to realize its potential to the fullest when they participated in the Mansfield Rotary Invitational tournament in Dallas over the holidays.

“Down in Dallas is when I think everything just came together,” Boyett said. “Everyone on the team started clicking on the same cylinders, and that’s when I think we all realized it was within our grasp.

The Lady Panthers would be considered serious contenders regardless of the location, but playing at home will give them an added boost of confidence as the state’s premier teams converge on central Lonoke County.

“It will be a big help because we’ll have a lot of fans,” Boyett said. “The support in our home games has been great. When we got up west we didn’t have that, so it’s going to be very exciting.”

West No. 2 seed Rogers also has a first-round bye on Cabot’s side of the bracket, but perhaps the biggest threat in the top half could come from 7A/6A East No. 3 seed Little Rock Hall. The battle for supremacy on the lower half will most likely come down to West No. 1 seed Fort Smith Northside and Central No. 2 seed North Little Rock. Both have byes through the first round.

The Cabot boys’ team had to hold their breath in the final weeks of the regular season before ending up the No. 5 seed out of the Central Conference as the league race played out. The Panthers finished 15-8 overall but struggled during stints of their conference schedule after starting their conference campaign on a three-game losing streak, but ended up with enough points to beat out Little Rock Central for the fifth seed.

Cabot will face Springdale, the No. 4 seed out of the 7A West, today at 2:30 p.m. The two teams met back in December with Cabot winning 56-40.

The letdown would have been tremendous had the Panthers not qualified for state with the tourney being held in their back yard, but coach Jerry Bridges commended the efforts of his team throughout the season, as well as leadership from seniors Adam Rock, Justin McMahan, J.D. Brunett, Arthur West and Sam Howe.

“This is their reward for all the hard work they’ve put in,” Bridges said. “It’s a good experience for those five guys. They have come a long way – they’re the most improved team I’ve ever coached, and it’s been a pleasure to work with them.

“They’ve worked hard to get here, and they’ll keep working hard because that’s all they know to do.”