Leader Blues

Friday, March 13, 2009

SPORTS >> Big-game hunters miss mark

Leader sportswriter

HOT SPRINGS – The quest to bag the big one could have used a few less stray bullets.

But what Lonoke really needed in the fourth quarter was an answer to Shiloh Christian’s dominant 5-11 senior power-forward Megan Herbert, who scored 14 of her game-high 26 points in the final period to lead the Lady Saints to the 4A state title with a 51-45 win on Thursday at Summit Arena.

It was the third consecutive heartache in a state championship game for Lonoke, which lost to CAC in 2007 and Huntsville last year.

The Lady Jackrabbits (27-7) were on pace to hold Herbert, a University of Central Arkansas signee, well below her 26-point average through the first three quarters, but the final eight minutes were all hers. Herbert put Shiloh Christian (34-1) ahead for the final time at 41-39 with a driving jumper at the 1:58 mark, and went 7 of 8 at the foul line down the stretch.

A 13-of-41 percentage from the floor hampered the Lady Jackrabbits all night. That included 14 missed lay-ups. The Lady ’Rabbits’ outside shooting showed promise, as they hit 3 of 5 from behind the three-point line, and benefited from some critical mid-range jumpers by sophomore Cara Neighbors in the second half.

Lonoke was in no mood to gamble on long-distance shots, however, as it continued to try to drive the ball inside. Ashleigh Himstedt’s bid to pull to the Lady ’Rabbits within one with 58 seconds remaining came up empty after she failed to convert following a nifty drive through the lane. The Lady Saints hit a pair of free throws to increase the lead to 44-39.

“Those same kids that went 3 of 5 from three were also the same kids that were getting to the rack pretty aggressively,” said Morris. “I mean, that’s my opinion. I thought we did the things that made us successful the last two weeks. At what point did we have to have threes? Except the last 30 seconds.”

Herbert, who was named the game’s MVP, began her stellar fourth-quarter run at the 6:38 mark with a putback. She followed that with a transition basket that gave Shiloh a 33-26 lead, but Lonoke came back with baskets by Neighbors and Himstedt to cut it to three.

The Lady Jackrabbits finally tied it up at 35-all on a Neighbors three-pointer and two Himstedt free throws with 3:53 left to play. The Lady Saints briefly recaptured the lead on a Cheyenne Baker free throw before Brown found Himstedt uncovered for a back-door lay-up to make it 37-36 with 3:25 left, giving Lonoke its first lead since the 2:05 mark of the opening period.

But Lonoke was living on borrowed time, with Neighbors, Brown and post Asiah Scribner all carrying four personal fouls. Scribner, who didn’t receive many looks offensively, had done a solid job of containing SC center Kami Garrison all night, holding her to six points. But her fouls limited her defensively and Herbert began to dominate down the stretch.

“She’s tough,” Morris said of Herbert. “She imposed her will inside when she wanted to. We tried to stop that drive that she normally gets 10 more out of in a game. We tried to help deep in the lane, but against her, she’s just going to blow you off her arm and get the (basket) and-one. So, she’s a tough basketball player.”

After Himstedt’s bucket put the Lady Rabbits up, Herbert made a free throw to tie it before Jessie Park hit a 10-footer along the baseline that put Shiloh ahead 39-37 with 2:48 left. Lonoke tied it on two Shoemaker free throws 24 seconds later before Herbert’s lay-up put Shiloh up for good at the 2:05 mark.

Herbert got the Lady Saints out to an early 11-7 lead with seven points in the first quarter. She added two more baskets in the middle of the second quarter to give Shiloh an 18-8 lead, but her basket and free throw with 4:46 left in the first half were her last points for the next 14:08 of the game.

The Lady Saints came into the game under similar circumstances as Lonoke, having lost to Marshall in the 3A finals in ’07 and falling to the same team in the semis last year.

“I commend coach Morris on the job he’s done,” said Shiloh Christian coach Vic Rimmer. “I know it’s tough getting here three times and have that happen. As the season went on, I thought we really began to gel. I thought the difference in the game was just our cohesiveness.”

For Morris and the Lady Jackrabbits, a week of hearing that the third time just might be the charm ended in disappointment.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Morris said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in that dressing room. It’s not easy to tell those kids that their dreams are over for the year. All I know that we can do is dig, scratch, claw and fight to come back.”