Wednesday, March 16, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers prove them all wrong

Leader sports editor

People continue to call the Cabot Panthers’ 59-49 win over Bentonville in the Class 7A state championship game last Friday an upset, and rightly so, in a certain sense. No one gave the Panthers much of a chance against the Tigers, who boast one of the nation’s top recruits in senior sensation Malik Monk. There’s little debate about Monk being the best high school player in Arkansas, but neither should there be any doubt that Cabot is a better team than Bentonville.

But the Cabot doubters didn’t come along for the state championship game. Not many gave the Panthers much of a chance to beat Springdale. Along press row at Panther Arena, at least two reporters declared Cabot’s season finished when the Bulldogs went on a second-quarter run that gave them an 11-point halftime lead.

One person leaned over to the local sports editor and declared, “welcome to the 7A-West.”
Confused and wanting clarification, it was explained to the local sports editor that the 7A-West was much, much stronger than the Central and East, and that Springdale’s blowout of Cabot, which seemed to be underway, was always and predictably inevitable.

Not only did Cabot surprise the 7A-West admirers, but so did Bryant. The Hornets beat Fayetteville in the other quarterfinal game, leaving Bentonville as the only 7A-West team in the semifinals. And Bentonville itself got all it could handle from West Memphis in its quarterfinal game after the Blue Devils beat Springdale Har-Ber in the first round.

That same local sports editor ran into an old acquaintance he hadn’t seen in a few years, a radio analyst and message board owner, and was told, very matter of factly, “y’all (as if the reporter was part of the Cabot program) are going to get killed.”

It was further iterated that the 7A boys’ game was a complete mismatch and that Cabot had no one who could possibly matchup with, and/or stop Monk.

No one person did stop Monk, but the Panthers collectively guarded and frustrated the 6-foot-4 Kentucky Wildcat to-be into his worst performance this season, and proved all the cocksure prognosticators dead wrong. 

Before the game, Cabot coach Jerry Bridges said he hoped to hold Monk to his average while holding every other Tiger below theirs. That’s what had worked for Fayetteville and that was the advice Fayetteville coach Kyle Adams gave Bridges.

Monk’s average was 30-plus. He scored 19. He went 0 for 11 from 3-point range and 2 for 12 from the floor in the fourth quarter, primarily because he rarely took an open shot.

Cabot defenders were picking him up 25-30 feet from the basket, and sometimes more than one. Monk regularly dribbled by the first man out on him, but always found another defender or two, or more, cutting off his pathways to the basket.

After the game, Monk, to his credit, was gracious and accommodating, and even upbeat, to the throngs of media and fans vying for a moment of his time. He told reporters that Cabot didn’t do anything his team had not seen before, but credited the Panthers with executing their plan better than the Tigers did theirs.

He was right.

It’s said so often it sounds like a clichĂ©, but Cabot’s victory was indeed a total team effort.

In the first few moments of the game, it looked like the radio host might be right. Cabot turned the ball over three times before it got a shot off. Monk’s first two baskets were huge two-handed dunks; one in transition off a turnover and one off dribble penetration in the halfcourt set. Just like that, Cabot was behind 13-2 five minutes into the game. But Logan Gilbertson and Jarrod Barnes came off the bench to provide a huge spark for the Panthers.

They combined for five-straight points and Matt Stanley added another basket to quickly cut the deficit to 13-9.

Bentonville was an overall taller team than Cabot, but the Panthers’ inside game was stronger. The Tigers’ shortest player is listed at 6-feet, but most, even the 6-foot-6 Asa Hutchinson (grandson and namesake of the governor) rarely battled inside.

Bentonville’s 6-5 center Ty Robinson was effective enough offensively, but he could not defend the 6-8 Stanley, and the junior transfer from Vilonia led the Panthers offensively in the second quarter when they turned the game around for the first time.

Stanley scored eight of his 13 points in the second as Cabot turned a 15-9 deficit at the start of the quarter into a 25-22 lead at halftime.

But Stanley was hit with three quick fouls in the third quarter and was taken out of the game as Bentonville reestablished control. Stanley wasn’t the only Panther to pick up fouls quickly in the third. The first six fouls of the quarter, and eight of the first nine, were called on Cabot, and Bentonville was in the bonus less than halfway through the period, before Cabot had shot a single free throw.

Bentonville took the lead back, 36-33, by the end of the third, and scored the first four points of the fourth to take a 40-33 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

With Stanley stuck on the bench, Cabot had to find a different way to turn things around in the fourth quarter than it did in the second.

Despite giving up four straight to start the fourth, Cabot began to find its way again in the waning moments of the third. Gilbertson took a charge with about a minute left in the third, but Cabot didn’t capitalize. Bentonville tried to hold for the last shot, but Sebastian Zulch came off the bench for only a few seconds at the end of the third, and made a huge play. He perfectly timed and executed his double team as he and Barnes harassed Monk into a backcourt violation that led to a free throw by Stanley to end the quarter.

Once Cabot got down seven with seven minutes to go, things changed dramatically. Cabot got hot from the floor. Barnes hit two 3-pointers and Hunter Southerland made one, and the Panthers went 5 of 6 from two-point range the rest of the way.

The fourth quarter can only be called a rout. Cabot outscored Bentonville 26-13, but the Tigers’ last seven points were basically after the winner had been determined.

From seven down, Cabot went on an 18-2 run, including 15 in a row to take a 51-42 lead with three minutes left.

No one at the time would’ve said the game was over at that point, but in retrospect, it was. Bentonville was gassed. Most of the team appeared to be waiting for Monk to do something, and Monk was primarily relying on, or perhaps settling for, long jump shots.

Fatigue was setting in and after being kept out of the lane all game; it was almost all he could rely on. He did crash the boards hard and it got him a couple of offensive rebounds and putbacks late in the game, but that wasn’t going to be enough to mount a comeback.

The better team had prevailed.