SPORTS >> Falcons sneak past CAC and advance to state semifinals
ALMA – It’s hard to imagine how upset head coach Ray Cooper might have been if his North Pulaski Falcons had actually lost.
As it was, he was plenty upset even after North Pulaski (23-6) held on for a 64-63 win over Central Arkansas Christian in the quarterfinal round of the 5A state tournament at Airedale Arena on Thursday night. They will take on the winner of Friday’s quarterfinal matchup between top-ranked Forrest City and Morrilton.
The Falcons escaped, thanks to a mid-air defensive grab by Daquan Bryant that prevented Central Arkansas Christian from launching one last shot with .5 second left.
The Mustangs (17-11) took their best shot on the heels of a blistering 23-point performance by senior guard Carter Trent, and North Pulaski watched numerous opportunities to pull away go by the wayside with a simple flick of Trent’s wrists. Trent lit up the Falcons with seven three-point baskets, going 70 percent for the game from behind the arc.
“There’s no sense in me coming back on Saturday,” said a surprisingly dejected Cooper after the game. “Because they’re taking the scouting report out, and they’re not doing what we’re telling them to do out of time-outs.
“We talked about all game long, don’t leave (Trent). Don’t leave him. And we leave him wide open, six threes uncontested in the first half. So I’m just going to let the team come up here on Saturday and do it on their own since they don’t need me.”
The only two-point basket of the night for Trent with 14 seconds left pulled the Mustangs to within one. He then quickly sent Jerald Blair to the line with no time off the clock for a one-and-one. Blair missed the front end, and CAC rebounded and got the ball down court. The Mustangs called time out with less than seven seconds remaining to set up a potential game-winning play.
They went to Trent one last time, but his shot was off the mark, as Aaron Cooper chased the ball to the end line, but could not come up with the rebound. The clock ran out after the ball went out, but the officials put 0.5 second back on the clock.
Lucas Sandlin chunked the ball high in the lane on the inbound, but Bryant prevented a tip in with a grab in the paint that sealed it.
“We’re here to play the best that we can,” said Cooper. “I can accept losses. Losses happen in basketball. But you go out and you give your best effort, both mentally and physically. Physically, I thought we played harder this game, but we played stupid continuously.”
The Falcons relied more heavily on the inside game, led by Bryant’s 20 points and eight rebounds.
He put up nine of those points in the first quarter, but Trent’s four long-distance shots kept the Mustangs out front for much of the period. Bryant had a four-point run in the final minute that tied the game at 17-all before Ryan Lamberson scored in the final seconds to end the first quarter 19-17 CAC.
The Mustangs added to their lead to start the second quarter with baskets by Mason Morgan and Jaylon Jones. Jones’ shot at the 6:56 mark gave CAC their biggest lead of the game at 23-17, but it was short-lived.
Junior guard Aaron Cooper cut that lead to one with an inside basket, followed by a three-pointer with 4:15 left in the half. Bryant and Cooper then went to the line on consecutive trips, and went 4 of 4 to put North Pulaski back on top, 32-27.
Trent’s sixth three-pointer of the first half came just before the halftime buzzer to give the Mustangs a 38-37 lead at the break.
“Things like that will eventually bite you if you don’t wake up and realize it,” said Cooper. “We had our good players, supposedly, and we put Aaron on him, and Aaron left him open. We put Blair on him, and Blair left him open. We put Christian (Knight) on him, and Christian left him open. We put Kyron on him, and Kyron left him open.
“So I don’t know if I’ve got a dude that’s smart enough to read 15 (Trent’s number) on a jersey.”
Things looked good for North Pulaski with 1:29 left in the game when the Falcons held a 62-55 lead after a shot by Kyron Ware. Post player Scott Cook quickly answered for CAC with a bucket, and a steal set up a lay-up by Sandlin to make it 62-59 with 1:07 left.
The Mustangs then forced a five-second call on the ensuing inbounds play, which led to a pair of free throws by Lamberson that cut it to one. Ware then hit both ends of a one-and-one, but Lucas drove for a basket to cut it to one.
Blair got four of his six points in the middle of the fourth quarter on an assist from Bryant at the 5:45 mark and a putback with 4:11 left to play.
The Falcons shot 25 of 46 for the game, including 3 of 9 from three-point range. CAC was 22 of 41 and 10 of 17. North Pulaski won the rebounding battle 24-18, and committed 15 turnovers compared to 19 giveaways by the Mustangs.
Cooper added 16 points and five assists for North Pulaski. Ware finished with 10 points, with 10 points each for Blair and post Carlos Donley.
For CAC, Lamberson had 10 points, while Cook led on the boards with five rebounds.