Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

SPORTS >> Wildcat season comes to end in loss at state

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Harding Academy did just about everything it needed to be in position to spring a first-round upset at the 3A state tournament on Tuesday afternoon.

Then, over the course of about five minutes to start the second half, the Wildcats missed a couple of easy shots inside and four straight free throws. That, combined with Mountain View’s renewed energy, was just enough for the No. 1 seed Yellowjackets to hold on for a 47-37 win over Harding Academy at the Riverview Activity Center.

“The first two or three minutes of the second half we knew were going to be important,” said Harding Academy coach Brad Francis. “(Mountain View) came out with a little more intensity than they did in the first half, which we knew they were going to do. We didn’t quite match that. And a team like that you have to match their intensity or even more than that. And I thought we did in the first half.”

The Wildcats used patience on offense and solid defense to hold a 14-12 lead at intermission over the 30-3 Yellowjackets. The pressure was suddenly squarely on Mountain View, and had the Wildcats been able to maintain their lead in the early going of the second half, it’s hard to say what might have happened.

But five Yellowjacket points over the first 54 seconds put them ahead and they never trailed again. By the time Ethan Gammill hit a three-pointer to push the Mountain View lead to 23-16, Harding Academy had missed three shots in close and four consecutive free throws.

“We had some shots that rattled out that might have made a difference,” Francis said. “And they have a lot of weapons. They shoot it well from the outside. They’ve got the big kid inside. They penetrate well. Their offense puts a lot of pressure on your defense.

“We had two people trying to keep it from the big kid and we always had one guy getting out on the kid with the ball.”

Seth Keese hit a leaner and Daniel Stevens drove the lane for a energy-infusing jam, but Gammill ended the quarter with another three to extend the lead to 29-20. Harding Academy’s last gasp came on Tate Benton’s three and Keese’s lay-up off a nifty pass from Benton that narrowed the gap to 31-25 with 5:15 left.

But big post man Aaron Farris began to take control on the blocks. His rebound basket made it 33-25 and it was never any closer than that the rest of the way.

Neither team shot it well in the first half, when the Wildcats made only 4 of 17 and the Yellowjackets converted only 4 of 16. Both teams warmed up in the second half, though the Wildcats could not keep pace with Mountain View’s 11-of-17 shooting, making 8 of 19 themselves.

“From an effort standpoint, it was one of those games where you couldn’t ask for more,” said Francis, whose team finished the season 15-12. “That’s been us all year, playing gritty.”

Stevens scored 15 points, pulled down seven rebounds and also had two assists and two steals. Keese added nine points, six rebounds and three steals. Zack Kirby chipped in eight points, but struggled to get any looks in the second half with Yellowjacket guard Dustin Caston hounding him around the court.

Caston led Mountain View with 14 points. Gammill added 13 and Farris 11. The Yellowjackets enjoyed a 27-19 rebounding edge.

For Harding Academy, it was a bittersweet ending to a season that began with a lot of question marks, especially with the loss of B.J. Roller to injury. That further diminished the Wildcats’ already-limited firepower, which consisted almost exclusively of senior Kirby and sophomores Keese and Stevens. Francis said it was a tribute to his seniors that the team had as much success as it had.

“I don’t think the kids will want to hear this, but we overachieved this year,” he said. “We had a couple of talented sophomores and that can sometimes lead to some animosity (among the seniors). But there was never any of that. We had seniors that were willing to take less minutes, less scoring to have success on the scoreboard.

“They didn’t care who or how we got it done.”