HOT SPRINGS — After fighting valiantly upstream the entire game against Conway, North Little Rock coach Daryl Fimple saw a wave coming in the 7A girls state championship game Saturday night.
"About 40 seconds left in regulation, I looked at coach Stump (assistant coach Russell Stumphaus) and said, ‘If we can get this in overtime. We’ve got a shot because they are tired.’ They (the Lady Cats) were settling for 25-footers. They stopped taking it to the basket because they were tired. I think we had then worn down."
The Lady Wildcats (25-5), who never led until 1:41 remained in overtime, closed overtime with a 15-1 run that secured the state championship and handed Conway (30-2) its first defeat to an Arkansas team this season.
The Lady Cats shot blanks and sent North Little Rock to the foul, where the Lady Wildcats were on target (30 of 37). Conway was 21 of 73 from the field, 8 of 40 from 3-point range. Leading scorer Alexis Tolefree, who couldn’t miss and scored 48 points when Conway defeated NLR in December, was 8 of 40 and 2 of 23 from 3-point range.
"When Lexx goes 2 of 23 we’re not going to win many games," said Conway coach Ashley Nance. "They did a real good job of containing her and making her pull up way beyond the 3-point line."
North Little Rock didn’t shoot much better, 22 of 70 from the field and 1 of 20 from long range.
Fimple said, "This (Bank of the Ozarks Arena) is a hard place to shoot a basketball because of the theater lighting. It’s difficult to shoot especially from the corners and that’s where a lot of those 3-pointers were being taken. We did a good job of pushing Tolefree out on the floor. We were gonna try to make her make 25-footers."
North Little Rock, with 6-4 Brogan Jones and 6-2 Yo’Myris Morris leading the way outrebounded Conway, 62-49, on the way to a 75-65 victory. Morris, a sophomore, had 18 points and 14 rebounds and Jones, a 6-4 senior, had 11 points and five rebounds.
Morris had two points and two rebounds the second half.
"We’re not big," said Nance. "We struggle with height."
North Little Rock hit eight straight free throws after Jones scored inside to give the Lady Wildcats a 67-65 lead with 55 seconds left in overtime.
The Lady Cats shot blanks. They were 21 of 73 from the field and 8 of 40 from 3-point range. Leading scorer Alexis Tolefree was 6 of 32 and 2 OF 23 long range.
Conway, who fought back wave after wave of North Little Rock runs, had a good chance to win in regulation. With 6.8 seconds left coming out of a timeout, they took the ball three-quarters court and got the ball to Hailey Estes for a layup.
Estes, whose 3-pointer in the final seconds against Little Rock Central in the semifinals got Conway into the title game, saw the ball glance awkwardly on the backboard and roll off the rim.
"That was a tough miss," said Nance. "We executed the play really well. This girl (Estes) made one of the biggest shots in the whole state tournament last Saturday. She can’t be perfect all the time. Once, we miss that and then overtime comes and we get in a bit of foul trouble and the momentum had shifted."
Conway had two players (Estes and Brianna Wells) fouled out and three other players (Tolefree, Savannah Lowe and Fu’tra Banks) finished with four fouls and Maggie Evans had three.
"The momentum just switched," Nance said about the 15-1 run in overtime. "Once that momentum switches late in a game you can’t hardly get it back. ... For us, we struggle when we foul. We need those five starters in the game. Once, they (the Lady Wildcat) started cramming it in the paint, we started fouling because of the difference in height."
"They’ve won 30 games for goodness sakes," said Fimple "They are a great basketball team. It’s hard on high school kids when momentum switches like that. We go into overtime with a double bonus, all those things. We kept grinding, Kept grinding and kept grinding.:
Lowe, a junior who hit four 3-pointers, led the Lady Cats with 22 points and eight rebounds in helping the Lady Cats to a 10-point lead in the second quarter.
Tolefree had 17 and Estes nine.
Kyra Collier, the tournament MVP, scored 20 points leading all five NLR starters in double figures.
The Lady Wildcats lost twice to Conway by double digits early in the season.
"What changed with us. We had just gone to Jonesboro and got beat and didn’t play very well," Fimple said. "We just couldn’t guard anybody. We just wanted to score and score and score. Finally, the kids kind of bought into the fact they had to guard some people and stay in front of them. When you have two 6-2, 6-4 people who can score, they make it hard to score when you penetrate. Our team chemistry got a lot better."