Friday, February 28, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Jackrabbits dominate Westside at East Region

Leader sports editor

CLINTON – The Lonoke Jackrabbits put themselves in a tough situation with a lackluster performance and loss in the district semifinals last week, but they bounced back from that effort in the class 4A East Regional at Clinton. The Lonoke boys, who had to settle for the three seed from the 4A-2 Conference, handled 4A-3 runner-up Jonesboro Westside with surprising ease, beating the Warriors 60-42 to advance to the semifinals, and more importantly, qualifying for the state tournament they will be hosting next week at the Gina Cox Center.

The Jackrabbits haven’t been to the state tournament since 2009, and coach Dean Campbell admits that there was more pressure to make it this year than most.

“There definitely was,” said Campbell. “First of all, you’ve got a team that should’ve been there last year and really kind of underachieved. I still hurt for those seniors because they were a great group. And also, next week would’ve been a really long week if we’re not playing.”

The first quarter ended with both teams posting just seven points, but in a way it still set the tone. Lonoke forced eight Westside turnovers, including three steals and three charges taken. The problem was on offense. The Jackrabbits executed the offense well except the final step, making shots. They got several good looks, but hit just 3 of 15 shot attempts in the opening frame.

“I liked how we were playing defense from the very start and that never really changed,” Campbell said. “We played this whole game much harder and with a much better effort than we did against Stuttgart, and I’m very proud of them for that.”

The Jackrabbits, 22-5, started to get a little bit of separation in the second quarter, but a disastrous last four seconds sent the Warriors into the locker room with all the momentum.

Lonoke led 27-21 when Darian Young put up a running floater in the lane. It bounced around the rim and was about to fall in on its own when Blake Mack tipped it and drew an offensive goal tending violation with 3.6 seconds on the clock.

Westside inbounded the ball under the Lonoke basket, made one court-length pass and fired a 3-pointer that missed, but Tykel Gray fouled the shooter. Westside’s Caleb Price stood all alone at the line and hit all three free throws to make it 27-24 at the half.

Warrior Chase Mickelson then hit a three to open the third quarter to cap a 9-0 run and erase what had been a nine-point lead late in the second quarter.

“We definitely gave them the momentum going into halftime,” Campbell said. “We had played pretty well I thought and we just talked about just continuing to play hard and executing like we had been. I never got the sense that the guys were that worried about it.”

After completing the comeback, Westside had only two possessions with an opportunity to take the lead, and failed to convert both times.

Young calmly hit a 3-pointer to put Lonoke back in front. Westside went 1 of 2 at the line on its next possession to make it 30-28 and the two teams traded buckets to make it 32-30 with 4:40 left in the third quarter. From that point, the Jackrabbits went on their own 9-0 run to take control of the game.

Jamel Rankin converted a three-point play that made it 37-30 with 3:28 left. Lonoke then forced a turnover and Young drained another floater, this time from the baseline, for a nine-point Lonoke lead. Young also hit the last shot of the quarter to give the Jackrabbits their largest lead up to that point at 43-32.

“He likes it at Clinton,” Campbell said of Young. “The last time we were here he hit four 3-pointers in the first half, and I reminded him of that.”

Lonoke got a defensive stop to start the fourth quarter and immediately went into stall mode by spreading the floor, penetrating to within 15 to 18 feet and kicking back out. Finally the strategy created an open look for Gray in the middle of the lane for a 45-32 lead with 5:50 remaining.

The Warriors got as close as 47-48 on a long 3-pointer by Price with four minutes left, but Darrius McCall answered at the other end before another steal led to a transition bucket by Mack for a 51-38 lead with 2:32 remaining.

Mack led Lonoke with 19 points. Gray scored 15 while Young added 12 and McCall 10 for the Jackrabbits.