Leader Blues

Saturday, March 01, 2008

SPORTS >> Panthers march on

Leader sportswriter

CONWAY — It took them 31 years just to get an invitation. Now that they’ve gotten through the door, they aren’t in any hurry to leave.

The Cabot Panthers picked up their biggest win ever on Friday night with a 64-50 win over Little Rock Central at Conway High School to reach the 7A state semifinals for the first time in school history. Adam Sterrenberg scored 30 points to lead the Panthers.

Cabot was last in the state tournament in 1977.

“I told the guys, in case it takes us another 30 years to get back, let’s dance a while this week,” said exuberant and emotional Cabot head coach Jerry Bridges afterward. “I’m so proud of these kids. They play with a lot of grit and heart.”

Cabot will take on Friday night’s Forth Smith Northside-Conway winner tonight at 7:30 for a chance to play for the state title next weekend at Hot Springs.

Cabot won the season series from Central, which captured the 7A Central regular season and entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed. The Panthers beat Central at Panther Pavilion, but lost 66-65 to the Tigers on the road earlierthis month. That loss came in the middle of a remarkable seven-game streak for Cabot during which every contest was decided by two points or less.

Unlike in the last meeting between the two teams, Cabot took care of business at the free-throw line on Friday night, and controlled the flow of the game. The Panthers made 26-of-32 from the line, including 17-of-20 by Sterrenberg.

“When they beat us by one point at their place, we went 10-of-21 at the line, and we gave up a lot of breakaway baskets,” Bridges said. “I thought if we could take care of those two things, and control the tempo, we had a chance to win.”

Cabot never trailed in the second half after taking a 24-23 lead into the locker room. Austin Johnson got the second half started with runner in the lane, and the Panthers opened up their biggest lead to that point when Sam Bates’ spin move in the lane put Cabot up 30-24. That was as close as the Tigers would be the rest of the way.

Though the Tigers dominated the offensive glass, the Panthers got a couple of big second-chance buckets themselves in the third period. Derek Clarkson chased down an errant three-pointer in the right corner and hit a 12-footer on the baseline to push the lead to 10 at the 2:13 mark. As time expired in the third quarter, Mile Monroe collected a wild miss in the left corner and drilled a 14-footer to give Cabot a 42-30 lead heading into the final period.

The Tigers stayed in the game by getting four rebound baskets in the second half. Cabot hit 6-of-10 free throws over the first three minute of the final period to eventually push the lead to 13, but Central scored six straight to narrow the margin to 48-41, still with 4:00 remaining.

But Cabot all but put it away when Sterrenberg hit a pair of free throws, Monroe made a circle drive from the top of the circle for a lay-up, and Bates added a lay-up to open up a 54-41 lead at the 2:20 mark. The Tigers got as close to nine with 51 seconds left.

“That last quarter lasted forever,” said Bridges. “Even with a minute to go and up 10, I said, guys, this ain’t over. Just keep playing. And that’s what they did.”

The Tigers came out firing from the perimeter, knocking down three threes in the first quarter, including Erick Brooks’ buzzer-beating 30-foot runner. But Central made just one more three-pointer the rest of the way.

“I thought if we came out in the third quarter and get a bit of a run, we’d be OK, because the quick shot,” Bridges said. “If you’re hitting that, that’s fine. But if you’re not, you have a chance to build on that lead.

“And we’re long in our 1-3-1 zone,” he added. “We push people farther out on their threes than they’re used to shooting it.”
Central was decidedly not hitting their perimeter shots on Friday, making only 4-of-20, and only 16-of-52 shots overall.

Cabot, meanwhile, took good care of the basketball and showed great patience on offense. The Panthers took only seven three-pointers, and made 18-of-38 shots overall.

“One thing we wanted to do was control the tempo,” Bridges said. “We didn’t do that at their place. I told our guys, if the break is there, push. If not, let’s control the tempo and work the clock.”

Monroe added 13 points, while Johnson scored 10 and Bates six. Sterrenberg led Cabot with six rebounds, while Monroe pulled down five.

Central out-rebounded Cabot by only six, but pulled down 24 offensive boards. Erick Brooks led Central with 17 points.

“We’ve been in close games all year,” Bridges said. “The key is to remain calm under fire. The other night against Southside [an overtime win for Cabot on Thursday], we could have folded our tent when they took the lead. But we remained calm and pulled it out.

“It was a total team effort tonight.”