SPORTS >> Lady ’Rabbits double their pleasure in win
Leader sports editor
PINE BLUFF — It was a victory that came a year too late, but there was a point on Thursday afternoon when it looked like it might not come at all.
The Lonoke Lady Jackrabbits advanced to the quarterfinals of the 4A state tournament with a 62-53 win over Huntsville at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, avenging their loss to the Lady Eagles in last year’s state championship game.
The victory carried Lonoke one step closer to its third consecutive state championship appearance.
“I called (guard) Ashleigh (Himstedt) last night and said, ‘Are we ready (for a rematch)?’ and she said, ‘I know we are,’” said Lonoke coach Nathan Morris. “We talked about wanting to play Huntsville. And this had a state championship feel to it, especially when it got closer. It was punch-counter punch.”
Lonoke did all the punching early and what looked like a cruise in the third period suddenly became a battle after Huntsville scored 10 straight points over a one-minute, 11-second span of the third and fourth quarters. With Huntsville beginning to catch fire — the Lady Eagles made five second-half three-pointers — while the Lady Jackrabbits struggled at the line, Lonoke’s lead, once 19, dwindled to a precarious five points with 4:50 to go in the game. Lonoke made only 12 of 25 free throws in the second half, just 20 of 42 overall.
But Lonoke’s guard play ultimately saved the day as Ashleigh Himstedt, Michaela Brown and Cara Neighbors stayed on the attack the entire game and Huntsville simply could not keep them out of the lane or away from the rim.
Brown, who finished with 12 points, five steals and three assists, answered Nicole Gurley’s three-pointer with a drive from the right wing and a runner that pushed the lead to 50-43 at the 4:30 mark, and Neighbors slithered through the lane for a short runner less than a minute later to up the lead to nine.
But Huntsville (27-7) was far from through. Three free throws pulled the Lady Eagles to within six, but again Lonoke turned to its fearless trio of guards for an answer. This time it was Himstedt driving the lane for a bucket. Neighbors took it into the paint one possession later and drew a foul. She converted them both and Lonoke appeared to be on cruise again, up 56-47 with 2:25 left.
Martha Robinson, who scored 14 of her game-high 21 points after intermission, hit a spinner on the baseline and, after the Lady Jackrabbits missed four consecutive free throws, Johnna TenBerge converted a pair of charities to draw Huntsville to within five, still with 42 seconds left.
But rather than pull it out and run the clock, Lonoke kept attacking. Twice in succession, Brown drove and dished, feeding the Shoemaker sisters – Emily and Erin – for lay-ups to put the game out of reach.
“When our guards are doing what they’re doing, we can live and die with that,” Morris said when asked if he ever considered running the clock. “When our guards decide to end the season, that’s when we’ll end it. If they had the opportunity to go, we were going to attack the basket.
“Those kids went in there fearless and strong to the basket and I thought that was the difference.”
With All-State center Asiah Scribner being held to just nine points and seven rebounds, the Shoemakers picked up the slack. Emily had seven points and eight boards, while Erin added four points and three rebounds.
“The other teams’ scouting reports talk about Scribner, Scribner, Scribner,” Morris said. “And when they help off on her, the next thing you know, Emily and Erin are getting their shots on the blocks. And they finished them.”
Himstedt led Lonoke with 17 points, while Neighbors added 13 points and five boards. Huntsville finished with a 31-30 rebounding edge.
“(People were talking about) our late-season funk and if that helped us,” Morris said. “All we needed was that hunting trip we’re going on. The girls are wearing camouflage shirts because this is a hunting trip. We’re tired of people hunting us. We’re ready to go on a hunt ourselves.”
Huntsville became the hunted on Thursday. Lonoke scored five seconds into the contest on Himstedt’s pull-up, and Brown stole the inbounds pass and laid it in as Lonoke raced to a 4-0 lead 17 seconds in.
Huntsville briefly took a 7-6 lead, but that ushered in an 18-0 Lonoke run over the next eight minutes. Huntsville went nine minutes, 34 seconds without a field goal. Brown’s weave through the lane with 32 seconds left in the half staked the Lady Jackrabbits to a 32-17 halftime lead.
Lonoke matched its quick first-half start when Brown hit a pair of free throws four seconds into the second half. Himstedt’s runner in the lane with 2:30 left in the third period gave the Lady Jackrabbits their biggest lead of the game at 44-25.
But just like that, Huntsville found its footing, getting a spin bank and a three-pointer from Robinson, a three-pointer from Ten Barge and a basket inside by Kelsey Rodden, and Lonoke’s lead was suddenly just 44-35.
Lonoke made 21 of 45 shots, missing its only two three-point attempts. Huntsville (27-7) converted 17 of 40, and 6 of 16 from beyond the arc. The Lady Eagles were 13 of 24 from the line. Lonoke turned it over only one time in the first half, five overall, while Huntsville had 12 miscues.