HOT SPRINGS — The wait is over.
After two seasons of coming a little short of a state championship, the Conway Wampus Cats took that much-anticipated final step and downed Fayetteville 66-56 in Saturday night’s Class 7A state title game at Summit Arena. That gave the program its first championship since the 1976 team won the overall state title.
"This feels much better," a relieved Conway coach James Bates said after his squad came up two points short in the 2008 title game against Little Rock Catholic and was eliminated in the semifinals last season. "I can’t say enough about how our kids stepped up facing adversity all season. They probably played the toughest schedule I’ve ever made.
"It’s been a dream season."
With starting point guard Kenyon McNeaill limited after suffering a wrist injury in last Saturday’s semifinal game, the Cats (27-2) knew they had to get extra production elsewhere.
That came from the other two-thirds of the Big Three.
Preston Purifoy, who was named the Class 7A state tournament’s Most Valuable Player, and Micah Delph both scored 25 points each and helped Conway turn in a strong shooting performance. The Cats hit 19 of 28 shots (67.9 percent) in the game, including a 12-of-16 output in the first half.
"We caught them on the wrong night," said coach Barry Gebhart, whose Bulldogs finished 25-6 after going 30-0 last season and taking home the crown. "They were absolutely fantastic."
When Purifoy wasn’t hitting, Delph was, and vice versa. Delph finished 8-of-9 from the floor, while Purifoy made seven shots in nine attempts. Delph was also a perfect 8-for-8 from the free-thow line. Purifoy finished 11-of-16.
"When we have two of (the Big Three) score a lot like they did (Friday), then we usually win," Bates said.
But don’t let McNeaill’s lack of stellar statistics fool you. He finished with just one point in 12 minutes of action.
"His leadership skills are unquestioned," Bates said. "This is a special group of players, and they’ve willed us to win time after time."
Friday’s contest marked the first time a team from both the 7A-Central and 7A-West conferences meet in the finals. Conway finished conference play 14-0 in earning the top seed and proved to be the most formidable foe Fayetteville faced in its quest toward another title.
"That’s by far the best game anyone has played us all year," Gebhart said. "One thing you fear when a starter goes down is that right there. It’s sometimes harder for three guys to share the ball than two. The role players did exactly what they had to do to win."
The two seniors of that group — Purifoy and McNeaill — end their high school careers with 70 wins. They’re also the only two three-time all-state performers in Conway history.
"To get 70 wins in high school as a Wampus Cat, you’ve got to go back to the (1970s) to find that," Bates said. "It’s been special having them. They’ve had great careers."
After trailing 3-2 in the early going, Conway reeled off seven unanswered points to take the lead and didn’t trail again until Kikko Haydar hit a jumper with 43 seconds left in the third quarter to give Fayetteville a 41-39 advantage. However, Purifoy answered with a strong move to the basket and added an ensuing free throw to complete a three-point play.
That was just one of several instances the 6-foot-5 senior post, who has signed to play at Alabama-Birmingham next season, caused problems for the Bulldogs.
"Purifoy, we just didn’t have an answer for," Gebhart said. "He’s a great player."
Purifoy and Delph accounted for the first 13 of the Cats’ fourth-quarter points. Such strong play from Purifoy didn’t surprise Gebhart. While he knew Delph was a strong shooter, the Bulldog coach didn’t expect the junior guard to have a game quite like this.
"I knew he was capable," Gebhart said. "(Two players with 25 points apiece) was obviously the difference in the game.
"I knew Purifoy posting up would be a problem. I didn’t expect Delph to go around us like he did. I thought he was more of a stationary shooter."
But that didn’t come as a surprise to Delph, the son of former Conway and University of Arkansas great Marvin Delph. In fact, it went according to his plan.
"I knew with Kenyon going down I’d have to step up," Delph said. "My whole mindset was to not be the guy who feeds off others but to step up and make plays."
Conway used its blistering first-half performance to take a 32-24 lead at the break, as Fayetteville hit four 3-pointers (compared to the Cats’ one) over the course of the first two quarters. All things considered, that wasn’t too bad of a predicament in the Bulldogs’ mind.
"I told our kids all half to just weather the storm," Gebhart said. "I felt good about being down only eight at the half. I knew this group wouldn’t go down without a fight."
That fight helped Fayetteville climb back into the game.
A basket by Purifoy at the 6:10 mark in the third gave Conway a 34-27 lead. However, the Bulldogs scored six straight points to trim the deficit to one with 4:25 left in the period. A little over three minutes later, Fayetteville tied the score when a basket from Taylor Cochran tied the game at 39 before Haydar’s basket gave the Bulldogs their first lead since the 6:31 mark in the opening quarter.
The Cats got into a little foul trouble, particularly with their post players. But a change of pace helped prevent that from becoming too much of a problem.
"We tried to slow down a little bit and shorten the game," Bates said. "We were kind of running out of fouls. It was good to have our bigs in there in the fourth quarter to rebound because Fayetteville does such a good job of rebounds."
All but six of the Cats’ 24 fourth-quarter points came at the foul line, a place the Bulldogs struggled. Fayetteville finished 17-of-29 (58.6 percent) from the line, including missing seven in a row at one point in the fourth.
Conway, on the other hand, was 26-of-36 (72.2 percent) from the line. A 5-for-6 performance from Colt Fason, who finished with seven points, from the stripe helped seal the game.
Fason’s seven and Teshawn Sims’ five points were the next two leading contributors for the Cats behind Purifoy and Delph. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs had four players in double figures, led by Haydar’s 15. Jacob Baxter scored 13, Cochran 12 and Adam Nobel 10 in the loss.
Regardless of the stats, there wasn’t much that could be done to stop Conway’s drive of bringing home a title.
"After seeing Catholic win the state championship our sophomore year, it really gave us a tremendous will to win," Purifoy said. "We wanted to go out on top."