Tuesday, March 04, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> LHS hosts state for first time

Leader sportswriter

Lonoke High School is hosting this year’s class 4A state basketball tournament, and both the Jackrabbits and Lady Jackrabbits will play their first-round games tomorrow at the Gina Cox Center.

The Jackrabbits (23-6), the East No. 3 seed, will play North No. 3 seed and defending state champion, Pottsville, at 2:30 p.m. and the Lady Jackrabbits’ game will follow at 4 o’clock. The Lady Jackrabbits (23-8), the East No. 4 seed, will take on South No. 3 seed, Star City.

For the Jackrabbits, it’s their first time back in the state tournament since 2009, and they earned their spot in the big dance with a 60-42 win over Jonesboro Westside in the first round of last week’s regional tournament at Clinton.

The Lonoke boys didn’t win the regional tournament, but earned the No. 3 seed for state with a dominant 76-56 win over 4A-2 rival Stuttgart in the third-place game.

In that game, Lonoke jumped on the Ricebirds early, and led 23-10 at the end of the first quarter, 39-31 at halftime, 59-45 at the end of the third quarter, and the Rabbits outscored Stuttgart 17-11 in the fourth quarter to set the final score.

Darian Young hit five 3-pointers in the first quarter for Lonoke, and he finished with 20 points. Fellow senior Blake Mack, though, led all scorers with 27 points.

The win over Stuttgart avenged a loss to the Ricebirds in the semifinals of the district tournament, but today’s matchup against the defending state champion Apaches will be a step up in competition.

Even though Pottsville still has some players from last year’s state championship team, including senior standout guard Michael Perry, who recently signed to play both football and basketball at Arkansas Tech after graduation, Lonoke coach Dean Campbell says it’s a different team compared to last year.

“They’re different from last year,” said Campbell. “Last year, they played multiple, different ways. They play small and then they’ll sub in two big post kids and another big guard, so they’ll play a different style. Their overall record isn’t great, because as the year went on they were still trying to figure out who they were and they were trying to find their identity.

“I think they’ve kind of found it. They’re well-coached. They push the ball and shoot it quick. They do have a couple of older kids that are back. They start two seniors and two sophomore twin guards and a junior at post. So they do have a bit of experience back from last year and some younger guys. They’re a team that’s very capable of beating anybody.”

Pottsville can make plays in the post, but the Apaches’ biggest strength offensively is at the guard positions. Perry is the unquestioned leader of the team, but fellow senior Travis Cole can also make plays, and in order for the Jackrabbits to be successful in tomorrow’s game, Campbell said his team will have to play with a strong defensive mentality.

“We’re going to have to defend,” Campbell said. “We’re going to have to have a defensive mentality. Scoring typically isn’t a huge issue with our group.

“As long as they’ll defend and be focused and hit the boards and give ourselves opportunities – we tend to share the ball quite a bit on offense and are pretty focused.

“That’s going to have to be key. We’re going to have to know where Perry’s at all the time and a couple of the other guards. We’ll have to make sure we play smart defensively and play hard and do it consistently.

“It’s exciting to get to play at home. We get to sleep in our own beds and get to play in a gym that we’ve taken a few shots in at least. To be able to show our place off to everybody in the state is exciting.”

The Lady Rabbits, who are making their first appearance in the state tournament since 2010, qualified for the state tourney after narrowly beating Pocahontas, 36-32, last week in the first round of regionals.

Lonoke’s girls ended the regional tournament with a 10-point loss to 4A-2 Conference champion Heber Springs in the third-place game, which gave them the No. 4 seed for the state tournament. Against Heber, Lonoke’s only player to score in double figures was junior post Eboni Willis, who had 14 points.

Star City finished its regular season with a perfect 14-0 conference record, but didn’t face a lot of tough competition in league play.

“Of course, they’ve got a great record, and really didn’t have any close games in their league,” said Lonoke girls’ coach Nathan Morris. “(Star City) coach Becky Brown and I go back a long ways. We’ve had a lot of battles. They’re real tradition rich, and really have a great girls’ basketball program.”

The Lady Bulldogs are a young team with just one senior that plays consistently, but what they lack in experience they often make up for with skill. What Morris says will help his girls as much as anything in today’s game is the fact that they’re playing their best basketball at the right time.

“We’re playing better right now,” Morris said. “With the exception of Saturday’s game (against Heber), we feel like we’re playing our best basketball of the year. We feel like we’re hitting our stride, and with us hosting this thing here, we hope we’re prepared enough to play at home and hopefully we can stick around for a little bit and win a game or two.

“We played half of our ball games here this year, so hopefully it’ll be just like another night.”

Star City has experience in the post and in junior guard Jaida Harden, who Morris said is the Lady Bulldogs’ biggest scoring threat, but other than those two positions the Lady Bulldogs are young everywhere else.

“Their post player is an upperclassman, but besides that they’ve got some youngsters that are playing some big minutes for them,” Morris said. “We feel like it’s a good matchup and we’re playing right after the boys, so we should have a big, big crowd here for the game, and we’re excited about getting it going.”