The best-laid plans worked out perfectly for the Conway Lady Cats on Friday night.
The Lady Cats relentlessly dominated Fort Smith Northside from the beginning, building a 24-4 lead before stunning the Lady Bears, 57-43 at Buzz Bolding Arena.
Later, the Wampus Cats missed four inside shots, two front ends of 1 and 1’s and a 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds in having a stirring comeback short in a 59-57 loss to the Grizzlies in one of the wildest finishes in recent history at the Conway arena.
While the Lady Cats (6-3) were in attack mode, the Lady Bears, 20-2 and ranked No. 1 in the state in most polls, sleepwalked through the first half on the way to their first conference defeat in nine games. The Lady Cats lost by 19 points to Northside earlier in the season at Fort Smith.
"We have been waiting for a breakout game," said Lady Cat coach Ashley Nance. "To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. We had one goal tonight — rebound — and I thought we did an extremely good job. We controlled the boards and that was the difference."
The Lady Cats buiit a 24-4 lead on the way to a 26-10 halftime advantage while Northside’s goal seemed to have a lid on it. The Lady Bears went 15:27 without a field goal the first half, not scoring anything but free throws from the 7:12 mark of the first quarter and not scoring their second field goal until 45 seconds remained until halftime. They were almost held scoreless the second quarter as they missed, and often badly, from all areas of the floor, including point-blank range.
"We are a better defensive team now," said Nance. "We spent the first half of the season worrying about what they (the opponents) do. Now, we are not worrying about what they do but we do. We were focused and I think it was our best game of the year."
Three straight 3-pointers by Olivia Williams drew the Lady Bears as close as they would get in the second half, 32-26, with 3:23 left in the third quarter. Allie Pack stopped the run with a lane shot, Christin Rogers scored inside and Alexis Tolefree hit a 3-pointer to build the Lady Cat cushion to 40-27 by the end of the quarter.
Tolefree led a balanced Conway attack with 17 points. Asia Willard added 13 and Jordan Danberry 11. Pack had eight.
After trailing by 11 early in the third quarter, A.J. Burton, who hit a 3-pointer from just inside halfcourt at the halftime buzzer, sparked a rally that made it a fight to the finish in one of the Cats’ best efforts of the season.
Leading 58-57, Northside (12-6, 7-2) made only one of four free throws in the final 40 seconds.
Trailing 59-57, Burton, who scored 23 points, missed a runner in the lane inside 10 seconds and three straight tip attempts were unsuccessful as players from both teams played volleyball under the basket. With 2.7 seconds left, both John Neckonchuck and Javonte Ellis missed the front of two one-and-one attempts, then Burton’s fallaway 3-pointer at the buzzer went awry.
Burton hit five 3-pointers on the way to 23 points. Javonte Ellis added 10 for the Cats (11-8, 3-6).