Wednesday, March 09, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Stellar Cabot defense faces biggest test

Leader sports editor

The focal point for any team when it comes to playing the Bentonville Tigers is obvious. It’s to figure out how to deal with Kentucky Wildcat signee Malik Monk. It will also be the focus of the Cabot Panthers when they face the Tigers at 8:45 p.m. Friday in the Class 7A state championship game at the Bank of America Arena in Hot Springs.

Monk, a 6-foot-3 two-guard, is a pure shooter and pure scorer with incredible athleticism. He’s averaging more than 30 points per game, but the Tigers have not proven invincible this year.

Their overall record of 21-8 might be a little deceiving. Five of those losses were to out-of-state teams with their own highly-ranked prospects played in very unfamiliar places.

One of the three in-state losses was a game Monk missed, a 58-57 loss to Fort Smith Southside. The other two losses were to Fayetteville, who won the 7A-West.

The Bulldogs beat Bentonville 60-55 at home on Jan. 29, and beat them 78-76 at BHS on Feb. 26. So it wasn’t hard for Cabot coach Jerry Bridges to find out whom to seek for advice on playing Monk and the Tigers.

“I talked with coach (Kyle) Adams this morning,” said Bridges on Monday afternoon. “I talked to him for whatever he could give me. He shared some things I’ll keep between us rightnow. But one comment he said was, their goal was to keep him to his average, but don’t let the other ones get theirs. Because if you watched him here, he’s going to shoot enough to score 50 or 60. And so let’s hope he’s not shooting 40 percent or better. Because if he is, we’re in trouble.”

Monk, who transferred from East Poinsett County High School in Lepanto after his freshman year, has been one of the top-ranked recruits in the nation since that year.

The Tigers routed Cabot two years ago in the second round of the 2014 state tournament, and Bridges said then that he was the best sophomore he’s ever seen. After watching him last week in the state tournament he hosted, his opinion of Monk’s ability has not waned.

“I said this on the radio earlier today and I’ll say it again,” Bridges said. “I coached against Joe Johnson, Corliss Williamson, that Parkview team that had five DIs. At this stage of his career, he’s more talented than they were. Is he going to be a better pro than those guys, I don’t know that, yet.

“Look here,” Bridge said, standing on the court at Panther Arena about 10 feet behind the 3-point line. “He can get this shot any time, and he can make it enough to where you can’t just wait back there (pointing at the top of the key). He’s a phenomenal talent.”

Jordan Hemphill can also get hot from outside, and did so at an opportune time when Bentonville was on the ropes against Van Buren in the semifinals. The Tigers won that game in overtime after Van Buren missed an uncontested layup at the buzzer.

Two of Cabot’s key players were also key players on the 2014 team that lost to Bentonville. Garrett Rowe and Hunter Southerland have been strong leaders for the Panthers this season. Rowe suffered an ACL tear before the season began, and was back on the court in four months. Southerland has been the steadying force for Cabot.

This game could be viewed as a redemption of sorts for them, and for junior Bobby Joe Duncan, who joined Rowe and Southerland in the starting lineup last year, when the Panthers were beaten badly, 71-44, by Fort Smith Northside after getting snowed in at the hotel in northwest Arkansas with nothing to do for days.

“That situation was not ideal, but Northside whipped our tail,” Bridges said of the weather-hampered state tournament last year. “We’re better than that, than what we showed from last year. Bentonville, we were young and we were happy we won that first game. I know they were better than us, but they shouldn’t have done that to us. We’ve been whipped pretty good twice the last two years, and that’s what we talked about. Let’s go redeem ourselves. Let’s show people we belong.”

Cabot has no one that can match the scoring potential of Monk, but it has prided itself on its ability to defend all season.