HOT SPRINGS — Conway Christian coach Ashley Nance said her Lady Eagles danced in the locker room before Thursday’s Class 2A state championship game against St. Joseph to help calm nerves.
Turns out, there was plenty more to dance about after their fifth meeting with their crosstown rival.
Behind their size advantage and resulting domination in rebounds, the Lady Eagles — in just their second year as a member of the Arkansas Activities Association — soared to a 52-42 win at Summit Arena in Hot Springs to claim the program’s first state title. That’s no doubt a feat that requires a great deal of work, something Nance doesn’t have any worries about when it comes to her Lady Eagles (29-5).
"The biggest reason we’ve been able to accomplish what we have is because we work hard — all of us," Nance said.
That’s especially true for Conway Christian senior post player Mallory Clutts, who turned in a double-double performance of 16 points and 14 rebounds before being named the Class 2A state tournament’s Most Valuable Player. She, along with fellow post player Breanna Hobbs, made things difficult for the Lady Bulldogs (30-4) on the inside and gave the Lady Eagles a 33-22 advantage on the boards.
"I’ve said all year long that the difference in 2A basketball and us is that we have two (6-foot-0) players inside," Nance said. "… I was really pleased with Mallory’s play. She was the difference in the game."
But Clutts got plenty of help from her teammates. Looking back, words her coach said weeks before came true for Clutts.
"Coach Nance always told us that if we had three people in double figures we’d win," Clutts said. "I was really proud of the way my team played. It wasn’t just me."
Christina DenHartog scored 13 points, and Kelly Hays added 11. All three double-digit scorers had six points at halftime before having more offensive success in the second half.
"They did a good job of exploiting our defense," St. Joseph coach Chris Kordsmeier said of the Lady Eagles. "They did a good job on the boards. They’re really good on the offensive boards.
"We had trouble matching their size. That’s a powerful weapon to have."
Still, Conway Christian benefited from having played St. Joseph — which reached the finals last season but fell to Danville — four times before Thursday’s contest. The teams split those meetings, but the Lady Eagles gained more than just a pair of wins during that stretch.
"Playing them four times before has helped us be a better halfcourt team," Nance said. "We’ve really gotten better at that. But, if you look at our team last year and compare it to this year, the biggest improvement in our game is the inside game."
That was particularly evident in terms of rebounds. That’s not to say it was a breeze.
"I was trying hard to block out," Clutts said. "It’s really hard when they have two girls on you. I was just glad I was able to grab several rebounds."
The Lady Eagles never trailed. A strong start helped them climb to a 27-17 halftime lead.
However, the Lady Bulldogs fought back to get within 29-25 after Heather Moix made one of two free throws at the 4:16 mark in the third quarter. But Conway Christian reeled off seven unanswered points to prevent that lead from getting any smaller.
"We never could get it inside four," Kordsmeier said. "I thought we’d be able to. They (Lady Eagles) maintained that 8-12 point lead, and we pretty much traded baskets from there and could never cut into that lead."
After hitting just seven of 19 shots (36.8 percent) in the first half, St. Joseph improved that mark to 45.5 percent (on 10-of-22 shooting) in the second half. However, as was the case for much of the game, the Lady Bulldogs fell victim to turnovers.
"We had too many turnovers at inopportune times," Kordsmeier said. "When we didn’t turn it over, we had some good looks. We just couldn’t get enough to fall."
Conway Christian led by as many as 14 in the game. That came when Hays sank a free throw with 2:14 left to give the Lady Eagles a 47-33 advantage. Jessie Moix quickly answered with a 3-pointer to trim the lead back down to 11, but the hole proved to be too deep to climb out of.
Much of that stemmed from how the game began. The Lady Eagles jumped to an 8-2 lead after a 3 from Hays at the 5:23 mark in the first. Kelsey Davidson answered with a 3-pointer of her own, but the Lady Bulldogs weren’t able to get any closer than four the rest of the half.
"One of our goals is to set the tempo of the game," Nance said. "(St. Joseph) likes to play a more fundamental game, whereas we’re more of a finesse and shoot the 3 team."
The strong beginning wasn’t anything surprising to Kordsmeier.
"They came out strong," Kordsmeier said. "They’re known for their strong start. They made some big shots in the first half, and that really helped."
The Lady Bulldogs had three players in double figures as well. Davidson led with 15 points, while Jessie Moix and Heather Moix had 13 and 10 points, respectively.
With there being a strong sense of familiarity between the two teams, there wasn’t much new to either side. Still, it came down to one recurring theme.
"They know us, and we know them. It came down to they beat us inside," Kordsmeier said.
As a result, it gave a little unfamiliar — although welcomed — feeling to Nance and company.
"It’s a little surreal," Nance said. "We’re going to enjoy this one."