VAN BUREN — When Conway’s Preston Purifoy saw his teammate Kenyon McNeaill didn’t have the wrist to play, he put the Wampus Cats on his shoulders.
As McNeaill was sidelined with a wrist injury he suffered in the first quarter, Purifoy carried the Cats — the top seed from the 7A-Central Conference — past a fiesty group of Tigers and helped land Conway in another state championship game after holding off Little Rock Central 44-43 in an overtime thriller in the semifainals of the Class 7A State Tournament at Clair Bates Arena. Purifoy, who had just four points at halftime, scored 18 points after intermission and set up a meeting with Fayetteville, the top seed from the 7A-West, in next week’s Class 7A state championship game at Hot Springs’ Summit Arena.
"When I saw Kenyon go out, I felt like I had to take over," Purifoy said. "It was a tough win, but the rest of my teammates stepped up, too. We wouldn’t have won without them."
McNeaill’s status for the title game wasn’t immediately known. Whether he gets to suit up Bulldogs, Conway (26-2) still has the same high expectations that were evident even before the season began.
"It’s been their goal all along," said Cats coach James Bates of his players. "Anything short of that would be a letdown."
Central (14-15) — the third seed from the 7A-Central — trailed 37-34 in the final minutes of regulation until Alandis Harris, whose playing time was cut short after picking up three fouls in the first half, drained a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left. Neither team scored after that, forcing overtime.
With the Cats trailing 39-37 in the extra period, Purifoy tied the score with a layin at the 2:12 mark. Then he made an even bigger play on the other end, as he had an emphatic block on a Trevon Wilkerson shot attempt.
But he didn’t stop there.
Purifoy proceeded to convert an old-fashioned three-point play at the 1:11 mark to put Conway up for good. Then Micah Delph’s free throws, the only points for the Cats not scored by Purifoy after halftime, with six seconds left gave Conway a 44-40 lead that was too large to overcome.
"It was a huge play," Purifoy said of his block. "But I’m not the only one who made big plays. My teammates came out and made big plays too. We had a lot of guys step up."
Jabari Shaw’s 3-pointer at the buzzer cut the deficit to one, making the score 44-43. However, Purifoy’s performance and the play of the defense proved to be enough.
"Defensively, we played our tails off," Bates said. "When you lose a guy like Kenyon, it’s tough. We had guys just step up, and we gutted it out."
The Cats’ chances of a state title last season were ended with a semifinal loss to Rogers. The previous year, the fell to Little Rock Catholic in the state finals.
Now, they’re no doubt hoping for better things this time around.
"This is very special," Purifoy said. "I hope Kenyon is OK and gets to play, but either way, we’re just going to step it up and hopefully get a W."
Neither team really took much command in the game, as the score remained close throughout. A 10-0 by Conway in the second quarter helped keep the Tigers from taking charge.
Trailing 17-9, Conway began cutting into the lead when Colt Fason scored off a TeShawn Sims pass at the 5:24 mark. Free throws by Xavier Clardy and baskets by Purifoy and Sims tied the game. Everett Reed’s free throws at the 3:38 mark gave the Cats a 19-17 lead.
From there, neither team led by more than three.
One way Central was able to stay close was with solid interior defense, as Harris and Chukwukerf Ekeh and Harris combined for five of the Tigers’ six blocked shots. Both, however, got into foul trouble, and Ekeh eventually fouled out.
"When they got those fouls on their bigs, we knew we had to keep attacking," Bates said. "They got some blocked shots, but the fouls kind of equalized things with Kenyon being out."
Central was able to use defense to its advantage even more as it scored 18 points off turnovers, compared to just four from Conway. However, the Cats had a 7-0 advantage on second-chance points.
Behind Purifoy’s 22, Delph was the only other Conway player in double figures, as he finished with 12. Harris was the lone Tiger in double figures with his 13 points.