Even though Conway’s "dream season" was capped with a 66-56 win over Fayetteville in Friday night’s Class 7A state championship, a loss from two seasons ago actually sparked the run toward the Wampus Cats’ first title since 1976.
Having run through the 2008 Class 7A state tournament in the first season at then Wampus Cat Arena (now Buzz Bolding Arena), the Cats completed their turnaround season by landing a spot in the finals against Little Rock Catholic. In the end, though, the Rockets prevailed with a 46-44 win over Conway.
That got under the skin of many of the Cats, including Preston Purifoy.
"That really left a sour taste in our mouths," Purifoy said earlier this week. "Seeing Catholic win and have a banner that says ‘State champs’ in their gym gave us a bad feeling because we knew that should have been ours."
That problem has since been remedied, as Purifoy appeared to be a man on a mission Friday night to help Conway hold off the Bulldogs. He missed just two shots from the field and hit 11-of-16 free throws en route to scoring 25 points. Having teammate Micah Delph score 25 points and turn in a hot-shooting performance (8-for-9 and 8-for-8 from the foul line) of his own no doubt helped solidify Purifoy’s mission, especially with fellow senior Kenyon McNeaill limited with a wrist injury.
"We have great shooters on the outside," Purifoy said. "Kenyon’s leadership skills really helped, too."
Still, the Alabama-Birmingham signee knew if there was going to be a championship before his high school career was over, he would have to play a major role.
"If I drove to the basket and was covered, I knew Micah, Teshawn (Sims) and Glen (Norris) would be open for a (3-point shot)," Purifoy said. "But if they really didn’t cover me, then I’d just take it to the hole."
That he did.
Purifoy’s penetration helped break down Fayetteville, which featured a much taller lineup, and compensate for not having the full services of the team’s starting point guard. While that wasn’t too surprising, the transformation of Delph, normally a spot-up peremiter shooter, into more of a full-fledge point guard may have been somewhat surprising.
"I knew I’d have to have a big game for us to have a chance," Delph said. "I had to help pick up some of the things that Kenyon usually does and just step up."
Don’t forget free-throw shooting in terms of stepping up.
Trailing 55-49 with 3:29 left, the Bulldogs began fouling to try to force the Cats to keep their lead by converting at the line. Delph’s presence, though, played a factor in that strategy.
"The reason we started fouling then was because I felt like they were going to just keep the ball in Delph’s hands," Fayetteville coach Barry Gebhart said. "I knew it wasn’t a winning proposition to let him shoot free throws. We wanted to foul anyone but him."
Purifoy and Delph combined to score 45 of the Cats’ first 55 points. Those big-time performances from two-thirds of the Cats’ Big Three were just what was needed to stave off a group of surging Bulldogs in the second half.
McNeaill, the other third of that trio, was still an important cog in the wheel that kept Conway rolling — even if it wasn’t evident statistically.
"You have to have him on the floor," Cats coach James Bates said. "He’s such a great leader and he does so many things that really help us be a better basketball team."
Friday night’s game marked the final time Purifoy and McNeaill — the only three-time all-state performers in Conway’s history — will suit up for the Cats. Conway will no doubt hope Delph’s performance can carry over into next season, as the torch seems to be officially passed. Looking back, though, "special" is the only word Bates could use to describe the feeling.
"This has been a dream season," Bates said. "To do this with the group we have is just special."