Saturday, March 10, 2012

SPORTS >> Cabot girls facing storied Northside

Leader sportswriter

Top seeds will collide when Cabot and Fort Smith Northside meet to decide the 7A girls state championship at Summit Arena in Hot Springs at 2:30 p.m. today.

It will also be a battle of youth versus experience with a Lady Grizzlies team, which starts three juniors and two sophomores, set to face the senior-laden Lady Panthers. Cabot (26-5) starts three standout seniors in Melissa Wolff, Laci Boyett and Sydney Wacker, not to mention a heavy contribution off the bench from senior guard Micah Odom.

Northside is one of the most storied programs in the state. The Lady Grizzlies have won five state championships since 1999, the last of which came in 2007.

The Lady Panthers went 13-1 through the conference portion of their schedule and won the 7A Central championship outright with a close loss at North Little Rock in early January as their only setback in league play.

That gave them the No. 1 seed in the 7A state tournament and first-round bye. Cabot easily got by the quarterfinal round with a 71-48 win over West No. 4 seed Springdale Har-Ber before facing Little Rock Hall in a semifinals matchup that went to the wire with the Lady Panthers hanging on for a dramatic 57-55 victory.

The Lady Grizzlies (29-1) took the other first-round bye in the state tournament as the No. 1 seed out of the 7A West Conference after an unbeaten 14-0 campaign. That meant they did not play at all until Friday, the third day of the four-day tournament at Cabot High School.

Once their time came, however, the Lady Grizzlies took care of business in short order with a 44-37 victory over West No. 5 seed Bentonville in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon to set up a semifinals showdown with Central No. 2 seed North Little Rock.

Northside played spoiler to the potential of an all-Central title game by defeating the Lady Charging Wildcats 66-55 in the late semifinal matchup on Saturday.

“We lost nine players off our state runner-up team last year,” Lady Grizzlies coach Rickey Smith said. “But we had a bunch of sophomores come in and play above their heads. It’s been an amazing season. There wasn’t a lot of hype at Northside to start the year; we felt like it was going to be a rebuilding year.”

Sophomore guards Brianna Jackson and Olivia Hanson are two underclassmen who have made enormous contributions as starters for Smith. Both players average over 10 points per game, as does junior forward Kilah Cummings. But another junior, 5-7 guard Bria Caldwell, leads Northside in scoring at 17 points per game.

“We know coming in that Cabot has the experience factor on their side,” Smith said. “But we also know it’s a 32-minute ballgame. We’re a young team, and we’re just excited to be there.”

Wolff, the 6-0 Cabot senior center and University of Arkansas signee, backed up a strong regular season with two more gritty performances in the state tournament, including 18 points against Springdale Har-Ber and 13 against Hall in the semifinal barnburner.

Wacker, who began playing her best basketball late in the regular season, did not get a lot of chances inside against Har-Ber and had just four points but came on strong against Hall with eight points, including two critical third-quarter baskets that denied the Lady Warriors a chance at overtaking the lead.

As for Boyett, she did not show up in the scorebook against Springdale Har-Ber on a night when Cabot’s outside-shooting game was near perfect.

But, when every possession and every point counted against the defensively-stingy Lady Warriors, she matched Wolff’s numbers with 13 points, including a 6-of-8 performance at the free-throw line. Odom has proved to be an equally serious scoring threat such as her 11 points against Springdale Har-Ber that included a three pointer and 6 of 8 from the charity stripe.

Cabot’s two junior starters, guards Elliot Taylor and Jaylin Bridges, also have plenty of experience as two-year starters. Bridges is the biggest outside-shooting threat for the Lady Panthers, and she proved it in the quarterfinals with 19 points that included five three pointers.

Taylor is so hard-nosed she actually broke her nose in early January against North Little Rock and wore a clear face guard for the remainder of the regular season.

She ditched the mask at the start of the tournament but did not let up on her game 12 points against Har-Ber and another eight against Hall.

“It’s a great opportunity for our kids,” Cabot coach Carla Crowder said. “I just hope we finish.”