SPORTS >> Round 1 to the Falcons
Leader sports editor
The much-anticipated, much-delayed battle of 5A-Southeast titans proved to be very much worth the wait.
In the end, North Pulaski refused to be intimidated by 11 blocked shots and a ferocious Little Rock McClellan press and took over first place with a 77-71 win on Tuesday night at the Falcons’ Nest. The two teams’ first scheduled matchup at McClellan was iced out on Jan. 27. They will play again this Thursday at McClellan.
“That was a fun game,” said North Pulaski head coach Ray Cooper, whose Falcons remained unbeaten in league play at 11-0 and improved to 20-5 overall. “It was back and forth, back and forth. I like it like that.”
What he also liked was McClellan’s decision to press his get-it-and-go Falcons, who exploited the Lions pressure to the tune of 15-of-21 shooting in the second half, while turning the ball over a total of only 12 times. Daquan Bryant and Aaron Cooper led the way for the Falcons with 19 points each. Bryant also added 10 rebounds, two blocks and five assists.
“When teams are going to pressure us, we want to attack and make them pay,” Cooper said. “They were leaving the back end open and when that happens, we have to attack.”
Though North Pulaski threatened to make a laugher of it early, racing to a 9-0 lead in front of the raucous crowd, Cooper said neither he nor his team was fooled by the fast start.
“We talked about coming in here,” Cooper said. “I don’t think (the Falcons) fully understood just how athletic McClellan was and how aggressive they are on the glass. We knew this was going to be a game of runs.”
Sure enough, the Lions (16-6, 10-1) scored 11 of the next 15 points to get back in it. Still, Kyron Ware’s breakaway dunk and free throw gave North Pulaski its biggest lead at 26-15 early in the second period. But McClellan scored the final seven points of the half to take its first lead of the game at 32-31.
Kelby Robinson and Mike Bradley caught fire in the third quarter for McClellan, but Cooper hit a pair of three-pointers and Bryant started driving to the bucket for eight more points and the two teams entered the final period knotted at 55.
The Lions surged to a 61-56 lead after four offensive rebounds on one possession resulted in a putback basket with 5:40 left. But Brian Coulson sparked a 10-0 run with a bucket inside. Jerald Blair narrowed the gap to one with a pair of free throws and Cooper gave the Falcons the lead for good with a difficult high-arcing, 10-foot runner from the left of the lane with 4:05 left.
“Believe it or not, Aaron practices that shot,” Ray Cooper said. “His pet shot is the runner, but he doesn’t use it a lot. They’re so big he couldn’t have got off a jumper there. He came up big on that play.”
Blair hit two more free throws — North Pulaski hit its final 11 charities and 14 of 15 in the second half — and Bryant finished off the run with a fast-break lay-up as the Falcons took a 66-61 lead with three minutes remaining. Twice, McClellan got within four, but the Falcons refused to sit on the lead, continuing to attack. Carlos Donley scored off a Bryant feed with 37 seconds left to push the lead back to six.
Ware and Cooper each hit a pair of free throws to set the final margin.
“(McClellan coach Chris Threatt) and I were talking that this was really good; this is going to help both of us for the state tournament,” Cooper said. “This was a hard-nosed game. They’ve kind of been wearing people out and we’ve been winning by large margins, so this kind of game, we really had to just grind it out.
“That tests your grit and both of these teams showed a lot of grit. We just made a few more plays.”
North Pulaski was playing without guard Joe Agee, who was sick, and was forced to play Christian Knight, who was suffering from a bulging disc. Aaron Cooper was also suffering from the flu.
“Christian gave us some important minutes,” Cooper said. “He wasn’t supposed to play until next week but we knew they were going to get after us so he was able to give some of our guys some rest.”
While North Pulaski finished with a narrow rebounding advantage, the Lions dominated in the second half. The Falcons pulled down only nine boards in the second half, five by Bryant.
“Daquan is a kid that lives for big games,” Cooper said. “He played all five positions tonight. He really stepped up for us on the boards. We need others to step up for us next week.”
With their torrid second-half shooting, North Pulaski finished the night over 50 percent (27 of 53) and made 20 of 26 free throws. Ware added 16 points, while Donley and Blair added eight apiece. Blair pulled down six boards.
The Lions made 29 of 61, 3 of 8 from beyond the arc. They connected on 10 of 12 free throws.
Cooper credited the near-capacity crowd with the Falcons’ energy and intensity.
“I wish we had this every night,” he said. “That’s what we’re building toward. Our student body is getting energized and we play an uptempo style that makes it fun for them to watch.
“We’re trying to build a home-court advantage. That’s what you need in these type of games. The fans were really big tonight.”
North Pulaski headed to Monticello for a game played last night after Leader deadlines.
MCCLELLAN GIRLS 39,
NORTH PULASKI 37
In a game of runs, McClellan’s proved to be a little more decisive. After North Pulaski opened the second half by scoring the first 10 points to take a five-point lead, the Lady Lions responded with eight straight to take the lead for good heading into the final period.
Laura Dortch’s 12-footer with six minutes left in the contest got the Lady Falcons to within 34-33 and Bianca Harper’s two free throws narrowed it once again to a single point with 3:20 left, but North Pulaski could never get over the top.
Harper came up big for North Pulaski with 14 points and 14 rebounds. She scored all four of the Lady Falcons’ points in the first period, but they trailed the whole way. McClellan led by as many as 10 midway through the second period. North Pulaski took only its second lead of the game on Keke Springs’ eight-foot runner with 5:07 left in the third. Harper followed with a baseline basket and Haley Hudson put back her own miss to give the Lady Falcons a 29-24 lead with 3:16 left.
Springs scored 11 points and Dortch added eight.