Friday, February 28, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Lonoke ladies hold off Pokey

Leader sports editor

CLINTON – The Lonoke Lady Jackrabbits overcame a disastrous third quarter and gutted out a hard-fought, 36-32 win over Pocahontas in the first round of the class 4A East Regional, earning their first trip to the state tournament since 2010.

The win was especially important since Lonoke will be hosting the class 4A state tournament next week at the Gina Cox Center. Lonoke coach Nathan Morris confessed that hosting state put added pressure on his team coming into regionals as a No. 1 seed.

“There’s no doubt about it, and I think the kids felt it too,” said Morris. “Pocahontas is tough. They went 0-6 against the top three, but that conference is tough. You’re looking at a conference where I think the two seed is a top four team in the state, and Pocahontas played them all tough. They weren’t blown out in any game.”

The Lady Redskins have played in many low-scoring games this year. Their sagging man-to-man defense effectively took Lonoke’s 6-foot-1 post player Eboni Willis out of the offense. Lonoke isn’t a sharp-shooting team from outside, so points depended on penetration and mid-range jumpers, and defense.

“That defense they run and how well they run it is very difficult to contend with,” Morris said. “We didn’t get movement inside like we needed to for that to be effective. So we had to have penetration. I thought our guards did a pretty good job of that.”

While Willis didn’t approach her season average in scoring, she was a force on defense, finishing the game with six blocked shots.

“They just kept driving in there,” Morris said of the Pocahontas guards. “We watched film and that’s what they do. Eboni did a good job of keeping her feet and keeping her arms straight up, no fouls.”

The fact that the game was going to be a defensive struggle began to play out immediately. With 3:01 left in the first quarter, Pocahontas led 4-3. Lonoke then got the first of few offensive spurts, going on an 8-0 run and taking an 11-4 lead with 41 seconds left in the period. The Lady Jackrabbits did it with defense, forcing turnovers on three-straight possessions. Amanda Sexton finished the run with a layup and Pocahontas called timeout.

They Lady Redskins added a bucket before the quarter ended to make it 11-6.

Lonoke continued to control the action in the second quarter as the two teams traded just three buckets each for the first six-and-a-half minutes of the quarter. With 1:30 remaining and Lonoke leading 17-12, Jarrelyn McCall had a remarkable next 30 seconds. It started with a 3-pointer that made it 20-12. She then took a charge, her second of the game, and was fouled at the other end. After she hit 1 of 2 free throws with 60 seconds remaining, neither team scored again, leaving it 21-12 at halftime.

Then came the third quarter. Lonoke managed just five points as Pocahontas pulled to within 26-25 by quarter’s end. When Kate Junkerfeld scored to start the fourth quarter, it gave the Lady Redskins their first lead since 4-3. It got worse when, after Callie Whitfield missed from about 15 feet, no one got back on defense and Ashlyn Ellis hit an easy layup to make it 29-26 with 6:02 left in the game.

Morris called timeout to stem the tide, and his team responded with an 8-0 run and held Pocahontas scoreless for the next 5:15. Lonoke created one steal after another or forced a bad pass or took a charge. Only a few of those were converted into points, but enough to put the Lady Jackrabbits back into a 34-29 lead with 46 seconds remaining. Kerasha Johnson capped the run with a steal and a layup that forced a timeout.

Pocahontas’ Emily White hit a 3-pointer out of the timeout to make it a two-point game. The Lady Redskins then forced an over-and-back violation with 28 seconds left. They got two good looks on the next possession, but missed both. Whitfield got the rebound after the second miss and was fouled with six seconds left. She hit both free throws to set the final margin.

“She did some good things tonight, but none were better than stepping up there and hitting both ends of a one-and-one to make it a four-point game instead of a three,” Morris said. “Jarrelyn stepped up and hit two there for us late that were big too. This team hasn’t dealt with pressure very well at times this year, especially early in the year. But they handled it this time. That’s just growing up. This team is growing up and that’s what we’re seeing.”