Tuesday, February 25, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Lonoke girls win top seed

Leader sports editor

MARIANNA – The Lonoke girls beat 4A-2 Conference champion Heber Springs for the second time in eight days on Saturday when they vanquished the Lady Panthers 45-37 in the championship game of the District 2 tournament in Marianna.

Heber Springs played most of the game with either Hannah or Skylar Johnson on the bench, as both players got into foul trouble. The Johnson twins are Heber Springs’ two leading scorers.

Hannah picked up her second foul with 4:25 left in the first quarter and sat the rest of the half. Skylar picked up her third foul early in the third and sat the rest of that period. Ironically, it was when both sisters were finally back on the floor that Lonoke began dominating.

The Lady Jackrabbits trailed 32-30 at the end of three, but outscored a full-strength Heber team 15-5 in the fourth.

“We just played well,” said Lonoke coach Nathan Morris. “Our guards did a tremendous job of handling the pressure, the pressure of just a game like this, and Heber Springs’ press there in the fourth quarter. They didn’t get flustered. They kept their composure and they made good plays. I thought we played very good defense too, especially late in the game.”

Sophomore guard Jarrelyn McCall, who finished with a game-high 18 points, opened the fourth quarter scoring with 3-pointer that gave Lonoke a one-point lead with 6:15 left in the game. In a game that saw 14 lead changes, that was the final one.

After a defensive stop, McCall missed a three, but Eboni Willis got the rebound and put it back in for a 35-32 lead.

Heber answered right back when Hannah Johnson went the length of the floor for a layup just 11 seconds later.

After a series of defensive stops by both teams, Lonoke’s Kerasha Johnson stripped Hannah Johnson near midcourt and hit a transition layup for a 37-34 lead.

Skylar Johnson then scored just eight seconds later to again make it a one-point game with 3:55 remaining. It was Heber Springs’ last basket. Lonoke’s defense became stifling and the Lady Panthers struggled to even get shots into the air.

Though the Lady Jackrabbits didn’t convert every steal or forced turnover into points, they picked Heber Springs’ pocket five times in the last four minutes and forced three other turnovers.

Just 10 seconds after Heber’s final bucket, Callie Whitfield made a nifty pass from the left wing to Willis, who was standing on the right block all alone for an easy layup.

After a Whitfield steal failed to lead to points, and another defensive stop, Amanda Sexton got an offensive rebound and putback that made it 41-36 with 2:12 left in the game – the largest lead for either team up to that point.

After Sexton’s basket, Whitfield got another steal, and this time she converted a transition layup to make it 43-36 with 1:09 remaining.

Whitfield was called for a foul on the ensuing possession and Heber Springs made 1 of 2 free throws to cap its scoring for the night.

The Lady Panthers were forced to begin fouling, and Lonoke only hit 2 of 6 free throws in the final minute, but its defense gave up nothing.

Heber Springs opened the game in a 2-1-2 zone that troubled Lonoke early. McCall then began receiving passes on the baseline and carving up the bottom of that zone with the dribble.

“They were doing some things to try to stop Eboni because she hurt them last week,” Morris said. “But McCall is our go-to scorer. If she’s getting open looks from four or five feet, we’ll take that all night long.

“But this was a total team effort. When everybody is contributing like they did tonight, we’re a pretty good team.”

The win gives the Lady Jackrabbits the No. 1 seed in the 4A-East region tournament in Clinton. They will open play in the tournament at 4 p.m. today against the District 3 four seed Pocahontas.

The Lonoke boys lost in the district semifinals on Thursday and will be the three seed. They will play District 3 two seed Jonesboro Westside at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.