SPORTS >>Wildcats escape with two wins over Owls
It was a home sweep for Harding Academy on Tuesday night at Harris Gym. The Wildcats handed Abundant Life its first 3A-2 Conference loss of the season, and only their third loss overall all year in a 54-51 decision. The Lady Wildcats were also victorious in their game, 43-41, but ended up with the fight of their lives against a surprisingly stout Lady Owls team.
The Wildcats focused much of their defensive efforts on the containment of AL senior guard Colby Woolverton. Congestion inside by Harding Academy prevented Woolverton from getting many looks, and held him to one of his lowest point totals of the season. Junior forward Dane Lottner also found himself the subject of heavy attention by the HA defense, as the pair struggled to get their squad back in the game in the second half after falling behind 30-20 through the first two periods.
“We knew at halftime that they would come back out and make a run,” Harding Academy coach Brad Francis said. “It’s nice to have a 10-point lead, but there still wasn’t any margin for error with a team like Abundant Life. Two or three big plays, and they would have been right back in the ball game.” Francis also believes the containment of Woolverton and Lottner was key in the win.
“We wanted to deny four (Woolverton) from penetration, and we wanted to know where three (Lottner) was at all times,”
Francis said. “When they get down, they seem to try and find those two more than the others. We knew that if we could key in on those two as much as possible, we could slow down their offense some.”
The team speed possessed by both units was evident right after the opening tip. Each team lost their first two possessions from steals before Owls senior post Nelson Boren came away with the first score of the night with a basket and foul at the 6:54 mark of the first quarter.
Wildcats senior Lance Carr quickly tied the game for the Wildcats with a pair of free throws, but it was freshman Seth Keese who really ignited Harding Academy in the opening eight minutes.
Keese’s three pointer at the 5:17 mark gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game at 5-2, and a transition basket moments later off of a steal by Zach Kirby raised it to 7-2.
The Owls stayed close early. A three-point basket by junior guard Terrell Ghant pulled Abundant Life to within two with 4:10 left in the first quarter, and Lottner answered a HA basket by hitting a pair of free throws to make the score 10-7. Lottner also came away with a put back just before the buzzer that made it 13-9 after one quarter.
Robert Perry pulled the Owls to within two with the first points of the second quarter at the 6:40 mark. The senior post’s inside move that was set up with an assist by Woolverton cut the Wildcats’ lead to 13-11, but Keese was not silent for long.
A free throw by B.J. Roller gave Harding Academy its first point of the frame at the 5:36 mark, but Keese found points off another AL turnover with a three pointer to put the Wildcats up 18-11.
Carr began to generate points in the final four minutes of the first half, with an inside shot at the 3:35 mark to give Harding Academy a nine-point lead, and busted a three pointer with two seconds left to give the Wildcats a 30-20 lead at the intermission.
Woolverton looked as if his scoring woes were behind him at the start of the second half with two quick scores, but the Wildcats answered both of those baskets with shots by Daniel Stevens and Chase Gentry. Lottner went down town for a dunk on the following AL possession, but the Wildcats refused to let the momentum slip away from them.
The Wildcats maintained their margin through what was easily the Owls’ best offensive outing of the game in the third quarter. That’s not to say that Abundant Life, Lottner in particular, didn’t give them a scare in the final eight minutes.
Harding Academy had denied Lottner of essentially any looks from three-point range, but the junior finally found what he needed on the left side to start the fourth quarter.
Back to back threes by Lottner in the first minute of the fourth quarter took the Owls from trailing by nine to a mere 38-35 deficit.
He scored again after a missed free throw by Keese was picked up by Woolverton, with Woolverton dishing to Lottner in the paint for a layup that made it 39-37 with 6:42 left in the game.
A three-point basket by Ghant with 1:48 left in the game closed the margin to a single point for the Owls, and appeared to set up what promised to be an exciting conclusion, but the Wildcats relied on the superior rebounding they had enjoyed all night long to prevent an AL comeback.
Keese led all scorers for Harding Academy with 21 points, with 11 points added by Carr. For Abundant Life, Lottner led scoring with 20 points, while Woolverton finished with 14. The Wildcats improved to 8-1 overall and 3-0 in conference. The Owls fell to 14-3 overall and 2-1 in the 3A-2 Conference.
Lady Owls’ Brittany Sharp lit up the Lady Wildcats with a 24-point performance, including 18 straight points that lifted Abundant Life to a huge first-half lead. In fact, the Lady Owls scored the first 10 points of the game to put the Lady Wildcats in an early hole, one that took the rest of the game to climb out of.
Abundant Life had a chance to put the game away in the final 39 seconds when Sharp pulled down a defensive rebound and headed down court on the right side. HA post Darby Miller stepped in front of Sharp to defend the fast break, and was able to set herself to draw a charge, giving the ball back to the Lady Wildcats on their end of the court trailing 41-38.
Harding Academy finally lifted itself out of the hole with 27 seconds left in the game, when a three-pointer by Taylor Mote tied the game at 41 all. Traci Wynn then came away with a steal for Harding Academy that set up a shot in the paint by Miller with nine seconds left to take the win.
“These girls don’t fully understand the tradition behind Harding Academy,” Lady Owls coach Justin Mosely said after the game. “I tried to explain it to them some after the game; we didn’t go over it before hand so much because I didn’t want to scare them. We really played well. I thought we got off to a great start. Hopefully, this will give the girls some confidence in knowing what they nearly accomplished.”
For Lady Wildcats coach Rusty Garner, the vast improvement of the AL squad was not too surprising.
“Abundant Life simply out played us tonight,” Garner said. “They have a good team over there; we knew we were going to have to fly up and down the court to keep pace. I’m impressed with how much they have improved. They are going to do a lot better in conference this year, and they will make some noise in the district tournament.”
As far as his own team, Garner was happy that they were able to finish out strong after a struggling start.
“I was disappointed with the way we started, but pleased with the way we finished,” Garner said. “I was a little surprised that we didn’t come back out and play any better in the third quarter. Their two studs got in foul trouble there in the fourth quarter, and we were finally able to turn the game around.”
Katie Koch led the Lady Wildcats with 11 points. Sharp led Abundant Life with 24 points, while junior Hannah Pastor added 10 points.
The win lifts the Lady Wildcats to 8-1 overall and 3-0 in conference play, while Abundant Life fell to 5-12 overall and 0-3 in 3A-2 Conference play.