SPORTS >> Harding Academy stuns 3A champs
Leader sports editor
The upset itself was noteworthy enough.
The way it came about was positively stunning.
Harding Academy dismantled the defending 3A champion Rose Bud Ramblers on Thursday night with a dominating 52-34 victory to reach the finals of the 2-3A district tournament at the Riverview Activity Center in Searcy. They took on Riverview last night for the district title.
“I thought it was a big-hearted performance from all our kids,” said Harding Academy head coach Brad Francis, who picked up his first win over the Ramblers since taking over the job in 2007. “I think we’re kind of over the mental thing (with Rose Bud). Every time we played them, it was a little bit closer and I think the kids really believed they could do it.”
The Wildcats might have had some doubts early on when Rose Bud surged to leads of 7-2 and 16-9 early in the second period. But Rose Bud wouldn’t score again for eight minutes and 33 seconds, missing 16 of their next 17 shots. Harding Academy seized the opportunity to go on a 20-0 run. All tolled, the Wildcats outscored the Ramblers by a remarkable 34-4 over a 17-minute span to put the game out of reach at 43-20 early in the final period.
“The key was to weather the stuff early,” Francis said. “They came out and put a lot of pressure on us and we got down 7-2 and 16-9. Then, we got back and got it even and all of a sudden, I thought (Rose Bud’s) energy level on the defensive end dropped a bit. And we started executing on the offensive end and knocked down some shots.”
Shooting and rebounding told the tale of this one. Rose Bud took 17 more shots, but connected just 13 of 49 overall and a woeful 3 of 27 from beyond the arc. Harding Academy, which was paced by a 15-point, 15-rebound, 4-assist outing by Daniel Stevens, made 17 of 32 shots, including 6 of 10 from long range.
The Wildcats owned the boards with a 36-22 advantage.
Harding Academy was able to shut down the paint on the defensive end, limiting Zeb Prothro to only eight points. Hot-shooting guards Jacob Pio (11) and Cody Smith (6) managed just 17 points.
“Last time we played them, we did a good job on Pio and Smith, but Prothro got 17 on us,” Francis said. “So we tried to take his possessions away and then we tried to contest every shot (on the perimeter). The kids executed the game plan to perfection.”
In addition to Stevens’ production, Seth Keese poured in 12 points and had five boards and two steals. Zack Kirby added eight points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Francis reserved some of his highest praise for the play of Caleb Hall, who scored 11 points, grabbed five boards and dished out two assists.
“Caleb with 11 points and going 4 of 5 at the line, he was really tough,” Francis said. “I think (Rose Bud) was probably testing him to see if he could knock them down and he did.”
The high-octane Ramblers got off to a typically fast start, getting a driving bucket and three-pointer from Pio to race to a 7-2 lead. But Hall and Keese delivered three-pointers to knot the score at nine and perhaps announce to the Ramblers that the Wildcats weren’t going away.
Rose Bud answered with seven straight points to take a 16-9 lead 22 seconds into the second quarter. Rose Bud missed its final nine shots of the period and scored only four points over the next 17 1/2 minutes.
Keese began Harding Academy’s 20-0 run with a driving bank shot, followed by a Stevens lay-up. Kirby tied the game with a three-pointer and Stevens gave the Wildcats the lead for good by going end to end for a bucket and free throws. Marshall Price and Kirby added three-pointers and Tate Benton closed out the half with a driving bucket as Rose Bud stumbled into the locker room suddenly down 27-16.
The Ramblers were still within 11 midway through the third period when Keese hit a three from the top of the key, and added a pull-up six-footer. Stevens hit 1 of 2 free throws to give the Wildcats a 37-20 lead after three.
Harding Academy exploited Rose Bud’s signature pressure defense with crisp passing and delivered 12 assists in their 17 field goals.
“They come at you with pressure every time and we knew they were going to do that,” Francis said. “We felt like we were prepared for it. We were able to execute very well. And Daniel was just a man on the boards.”