Tuesday, March 13, 2012

SPORTS >> Dominant defense lifts Cabot to first state title

Leader sportswriter

HOT SPRINGS – A season full of noteworthy achievements concluded in history-making fashion as the Cabot Lady Panthers claimed the first basketball state championship in school history with a 51-41 victory over Fort Smith Northside in the Class 7A finals at Summit Arena on Saturday.

Senior Melissa Wolff earned Most Valuable Player following a performance that included a game-high 22 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks and two steals for the University of Arkansas signee. Wolff was near flawless in her shot selection as she went 7 of 9 from the floor and was 8 of 9 from the free-throw line.

And for head coach Carla Crowder, it marked the fourth overall state title of her career. Crowder, who wrapped up her eighth season at the Lady Panther helm with the 7A crown, took Cabot to the finals in 2004 at the end of her first season and finished runner up before two trips to the semifinals in 2006 and 2011.

“This is an exciting time for us,” Crowder said. “Our girls have worked hard for years, and we’re so excited to be here and to have won this championship. It was a tough game, and we enjoyed being on top.”

Wolff made a pull-up jumper and converted a three-point play after being fouled on the shot to give Cabot a 47-38 lead with 3:32 remaining and pulled down a defensive rebound on the other end. That led to a putback by Wolff to stretch the margin to 11 and essentially put an end to Northside’s final gasp.

“This is the way I wanted to go out with us winning a state championship,” Wolff said. “We had a great team, and I just wanted us to finish strong.”

Laci Boyett backed up Wolff’s dominating performance with 10 points, but it was a pair of first-quarter steals, both of which led to transition points by Wolff, that set Cabot’s defensive tone early.

“I was just playing defense, and took the opportunities I was given,” Boyett said. “Luckily, we had people running down the floor to get lay ups off of it.”

The Lady Panthers led 27-21 at the half and added to their lead early in the third quarter when junior point guard Jaylin Bridges made a three-point basket at the 7:13 mark to make it 30-21, and Elliot Taylor added a free throw to give Cabot a 31-21 lead with 5:42 remaining in the third.

Senior forward Sydney Wacker kept Cabot going in the fourth quarter when the Lady Rebels started making a comeback run. Wacker took an assist from senior Micah Odom and scored inside with 6:13 remaining to give the Lady Panthers a 42-33 lead, and followed a three-point basket by Northside’s Bria Caldwell with another inside shot, this one assisted by Wolff, to increase the margin to 44-36.

It was noted at the press conference afterward that Bridges and Wacker, both coaches’ daughters, and Taylor, daughter of Arkansas Activities Association executive director Lance Taylor, had all grown up around basketball and seen many big games before becoming a part of the Lady Panthers varsity program.

“It’s overwhelming,” Taylor said. “It still hasn’t hit me quite yet. I’ve seen numerous teams lose and win, I’ve heard the Champions song over and over, I’ve seen the best of the best, and it’s just crazy that I’m here now.”

Odom, Wolff, Wacker and Bridges celebrated with high fives at midcourt as Taylor stepped to the line with 16 seconds remaining and Cabot holding a 50-41 lead.

That’s when Crowder pulled them off the court to make way for Maddie Smith, Sarah Fowler, Shauna Mertins and Lauren Morris.

Odom finished with seven points while Taylor had five points and six rebounds, and Wacker had four points. For Fort Smith Northside, Kilah Cummings led with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

“First of all, I would like to congratulate coach Crowder and Cabot,” Lady Grizzlies coach Rickey Smith said. “They played an outstanding basketball game. Wolff is a dominating player, but I think the difference in the basketball game today was their defense. They had us rattled all night.”

The new Panther Arena has been open for less than three months, but the 2011-12 Lady Panthers team has already given the school plenty of banner material with a win in their own pre-holiday tournament, a 7A-Central Conference title and now the first state championship for basketball in CHS history.

“They have been so focused all week,” Crowder said. “And we try to stay relaxed. They’ve been focused all year, but all week they’ve been really focused. And this group set a goal, and we worked hard.

“They’ve done a tremendous job for us, and there is not a single one of them or a parent who has complained. Our fans have just embraced us, and they helped us get here.”