HOT SPRINGS — Just a mile or so from Magic Springs amusement park, Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs is hardly "Shooters Wonderland."
The rims on the basketball court are tight. The backboards unforgiving. Shots often go in and out or glance awry like those baskets you shoot at on the midway for a stuffed animal. Either swish or get ready for the rebound.
In the girls 7A state championship game Saturday night, Conway and North Little Rock were a combined 9 of 60 from 3-point range (1 of 20 for North Little Rock; 8 of 40 for Conway). The game was virtually a wash from the field. North Little Rock hit 22 of 70 shots in a 75-65 overtime victory. Conway was 21 of 73.
The state championship came down to height. When the Lady Wildcats switched to a lineup that featured 6-4 Brogan Jones and 6-2 sophomore Yo’Myris Morris, they wore the Lady Cats down and got them in serious foul trouble.
North Little Rock outrebounded Conway, 62-49, had a 28-6 advantage on second-chance points and 38-22 on points in the paint.
"Even a 10-rebound advantage is huge in a state tournament game," said NLR coach Daryl Fimple.
But it took the Lady Wildcats, who did not lead until the final 1:41, awhile to figure that out.
"It took us three quarters to finally discover, ‘hey we’re big.,’" Fimple said. "We kind of used our size and athleticism down low and didn’t hurry our shots like we had. ... The rebounds and 30 of 37 free throws: That’s where we won the basketball game, especially when you shoot 31 percent. We knew that was gonna be a huge advantage on the glass. We finally attacked it the second half instead of trying to go over the top,"
North Little Rock only had a 26-25 rebounding edge at the half. Morris had two points and two rebounds. She finished with 18 and 14.
Many of the Lady Wildcats’ points down the stretch occurred after the North Little Rock players kept the ball in play underneath like volleyball players at the net. That resulted in both putbacks and putting the Conway players in foul trouble in those reaching grapples with smaller arms.
"Our players are not big and we struggle with height," said Conway coach Ashley Nance. "It was very aggressive in the paint. Hailey (Estes), Maggie (Evans) and Fu’tra (Banks) were working their butts off to get blockouts. It wasn’t like we weren’t fighting."
So, Conway’s season ended suddenly at 30-2, losing to an Arkansas team for the first time.
"When we went into the game, we know if win we’re 31-1; we lose, 30-2," Nance said. "For sure, other than this game, this was the best season, as far as wins go, Conway has had in a long time. We lost six seniors last year, five of them are playing college basketball. No one ever thought we would be here. They matured as a team pretty quick. They matured unbelievably throughout the year, particularly our role players."
But that one ugly game Saturday shouldn’t frame the big picture for this Conway team.
What happened at the end of regulation characterizes this team and their coach.
Senior Hailey Estes, who hit a 3-pointer against Little Rock Central in the final seconds to get the Lady Cats to the title game, missed a layup for the win at the buzzer.
But both Nance and Estes, eyes red, fighting back tears, classily owned things during an appearance before the media afterward.
"It was a tough angle, I think," said Nance. "I think it just rolled off the wrong way. To run that play that precise (in 6.8 seconds, driving three-quarters court) and get the kind of look we got, I was very pleased. You’ve got to hit the backboard just right. Maybe at home it goes in. Here, the depth perception is a little different knowing where you’re at on the court. It’s a different setting and it’s for a state championship. Emotionally, it makes things different as well."
"Coach Nance always says there are peaks and valleys during a game and that’s true for a season," said Estes." She helps us dial in and not get too confident or not lose your confidence. It’s an emotional roller-coaster, but we come through it together and we get through it together. .. I don’t think the score of the final game doesn’t prove what our season was like."
Then, the conversation turned to heart.
"As far as the three years go, the character of this year’s team is just remarkable," Nance said. "You take a look (he voice broke and she paused) .... I know we’ve been ranked No. 1. But you look at us, then you look at Central and North Little Rock. It looks like David and Goliath. Honestly, it’s just character. Out of the three years (in state title appearances), this has been the best (character), even the state championship (2013). We felt we deserved to be here. It wasn’t just all talent. This one was just pure hard work. I don’t think you could ever question their work ethic. They blew me away. They proved me wrong. I never thought we would be there this year."
This cake was without icing. But the cake tasted pretty good.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)