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DUMAS — Dominating the third quarter did not put the game away for Lonoke, but it certainly went a long way toward doing so.
The Jackrabbits survived a frenzied fourth quarter by Arkansas Baptist on Saturday to claim a 55-45 win in the semifinals of the 4A state basketball tournament.
The win secured a spot for Lonoke (29-5) in Thursday’s 4A state championship game against Hamburg, which cruised through Saturday’s semifinals with a 59-32 win over Dardanelle.
The Eagles started a rally to begin the fourth quarter, but when standout senior Pierre Paulk fouled out with 4:41 to play, things looked bleak for Arkansas Baptist.
They did not stay bleak for very long, however. Sophomore Chris Green stepped up for a pair of Eagle baskets that closed Lonoke’s lead to four with 2:44 left to play.
The biggest scare of the postseason for the ’Rabbits arrived at the 1:47 mark of the fourth quarter, when D.C. Green hit a three-pointer from the top of the key to pull the Eagles to within a single point at 46-45. It was the closest a Lonoke opponent had been in the fourth quarter since late January.
Seniors Tyrone Dobbins and Bradley Spencer played their normal leading defender roles throughout the state tournament, but had been content to let the ’Rabbits’ talented juniors handle the bulk of the offensive work.
That’s not to say the upperclassmen didn’t roll up their sleeves when needed on the offensive end. Spencer’s free throws with 46 seconds left toplay extended Lonoke’s lead back to five, after a goal by Clarence Harris moments earlier gave the Jackrabbits a 48-45 lead.
Spencer then picked the ball on the Eagles’ inbounds play, and found Dobbins for the lay-up. That pushed the score to 52-45 Lonoke with just under 30 seconds to play, all but putting Arkansas Baptist away.
“We’ve talked about the possibility of a game like this for a couple of months now,” Lonoke head coach Wes Swift said. “When you make a run at any kind of championship, you are going to have at least one game where you don’t play your best, and tonight was that game for us. We’ve said all along that when we had a bad game, we still would have to find a way to win, and tonight we found a way to win.
“Arkansas Baptist played really well,” he added. “We didn’t play bad; we just got down early and had to battle to get it back. We had some good stops when we needed them, and we made some good decisions in the third quarter offensively.”
Green got the Eagles off to a great start in the first quarter. The sophomore scored eight of Arkansas Baptists’ first 13 points in the game, with Paulk making up the rest with a three-pointer at the 5:35 mark, followed by a shot in the lane with 5:08 left in the opening period to push the Eagles to a 13-4 lead.
Lonoke struggled offensively early, but Harris finally got the ’Rabs’ on the board at the 6:24 mark, and Juice Lambert scored inside on the following possession. It was more than two minutes between that goal and the next points for Lonoke, when Michael Howard hit his first of three first-half three-pointers.
Harris added four more points for the Jackrabbits before the end of the first frame to cut Arkansas Baptist’s advantage to 17-14 heading into the second quarter.
The Eagles extended their lead back to five with a basket by Seth Miller to start the second quarter. Green then went on a 5-0 run on his own to push Arkansas Baptist’s lead back to 10 at 24-14 with 4:21 left in the first half.
But Howard came up big again, like he has since the start of district tournament play, hitting back-to-back threes at the 4:21 mark and 3:05 mark.
Myles Taylor converted an old-school three-point play, and Spencer scored the last five points of the half, including a three-pointer with 40 seconds left in the half that gave Lonoke its first lead of the game at 28-26. That was the score at intermission.
“The last three or four minutes of the first half, we just started setting up our posts better,” Swift said. “We started trying to go to our spread game in the fourth quarter, and defensively, we had to press them.”
Dobbins said defense was the key.
“We had to keep focused,” Dobbins said. “Good defense was the first thing, and then Bradley came up with that steal and got it to me for the lay-up, and we kind of got going from there.
“This means everything. We’ve been working towards this since the ninth grade, and we’ve never stopped. We’re going to keep focused and keep working hard, hopefully it will pay off with a state championship.”
Howard and Spencer led Lonoke with 15 points each. Chris Green’s 14 points led Arkansas Baptist. The Eagles finished their season at 25-7.