Wednesday, February 19, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Jackrabbits lock up two seed in finale

Leader sports editor

Senior Night was a great one at the Gina Cox Center on Friday. That’s where the Lonoke boys’ and girls’ basketball teams won their regular-season finales against Heber Springs. And the games weren’t that close. The Jackrabbit boys won 68-52 while the Lady Rabbits won 62-43. A lot was on the line in the boys’ game. The winner got the No. 2 seed in the 4A-2 District tournament that began on Monday in Marianna.

Lonoke beat Heber Springs earlier in the season, but both teams entered Friday’s finale with 10-3 league records. The Panthers swept conference champion Dollarway, and entered Friday’s game fresh off their second win over the Cardinals. But they had also split with Newport and Stuttgart, as well as losing at home to Lonoke.

“It all boils down to matchups,” said Lonoke coach Dean Campbell. “They apparently match up really well with Dollarway. They’ve beaten them twice and once pretty badly. We match up well with Heber Springs it looks like. We did a really good job defensively early on and then really got going on offense in the second half.”
Lonoke trailed by four points at halftime, trailing 22-18, before rolling up 50 in the second half.

“A couple of things happened later on in the second quarter that made me think we were starting to calm down a little bit and get into a rhythm,” Campbell said. “We were just a little bit better at sharing the ball. We had a lot of movement on offense and in the third quarter, we kept that up and started making shots. We shot the ball really well in the second half.”

Heber Springs scored the first two points of the third quarter to take a 24-18 lead, but four minutes later, the Jackrabbits were up 35-24 after a 17-0 run. Things evened out from there, and Lonoke took a 47-36 lead into the final period, where another quick burst sealed the deal for the home team.

“They started rushing shots and didn’t get many offensive rebounds,” Campbell said. “Heber always seems to bring out the best in us. Some of our guys know each other really well and makes it that much more competitive and intense. And that’s the way conference games should be.”

Lonoke’s Jamel Rankin led all scorers with 20 points. Blake Mack added 18 and Darrius McCall scored 13. Willie Adkins led Heber Springs with 18 points, all on 3-pointers. He made five in the second half.

Earning the two seed means Lonoke gets a bye to the semifinals and an automatic berth in the regional tournament next week at Clinton.

They play at 5:15 Thursday and it could end up being against Heber Springs. The Panthers played last night against Stuttgart, who beat Southside-Batesville on Mon-day. The winner of Tuesday’s game faces Lonoke on Thursday.

The girls’ match featured the top two teams in the league, and no matter the outcome, the Lady Panthers would be the No. 1 seed and their hosts the two seed in the district tournament. Heber Springs beat Lonoke by four points in the first meeting, but the Lady Jackrabbits dominated the second half. It was Heber Springs’ first conference loss of the season.

“We’re not 19 points better than them,” said Lonoke coach Nathan Morris. “We’re pretty even teams. On some nights they might be the four points better than us they were when they beat us. There’s not a lot of difference there with these two teams. They play a different style than us because of who they’ve got and who we’ve got, but it’s usually going to be a pretty good ball game when Lonoke and Heber Springs play.”

Heber Springs’ Hannah and Skylar Johnson combined for all 15 of the visiting team’s points in the first quarter, and it was good enough for a two-point lead. That changed drastically in the second quarter, as Lonoke tightened up on defense and held the Lady Panthers to a single 3-pointer. Lonoke went into halftime with a 23-18 lead before battling through an almost even third quarter.

“In the second quarter, we hedged screens a little better with our bigs and kept them from penetrating like they did in the first,” Morris said. “They have excellent guard play and we did a good job on them for the most part.”

Lonoke couldn’t keep the Johnsons out of the lane as effectively in the third, but was able to counter their offense by pounding the ball inside. Lonoke junior post player Eboni Willis scored 11 of the team’s 18 points in the third, including three and-ones.

“Her size and her presence make a difference for us,” Morris said. “And it’s just her inside game has gotten better. She’s getting her body turned around and getting her feet in better position to finish. And we’re playing teams that don’t have a big inside presence to contend with her. So she should be effective for us.”

Willis led all scorers with 24 points while forward Amanda Sexton scored 16 and Jarrelyn McCall added 15.

“I really thought the other two guards played extremely well even though they only combined for four points,” Morris said. “Kerasha Johnson and Callie Whitfield did a great job executing against their press and they defended the ball well. They’re the ones that created the openings for the ones that did the scoring.”

Lonoke will play at 4 p.m. Thursday in Marianna against the winner of last night’s matchup between Clinton and Stuttgart.

Stuttgart won its first-round game against Dollarway on Monday for the right to play Tuesday.

Heber Springs will also play Thursday against Tuesday’s winner between Newport and Southside-Batesville.