Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SPORTS >> Panthers bow out one game short of championship

Leader sports editor

A nightmare beginning led to a disappointing ending.

Undefeated Fayetteville reached the state finals of the 7A state tournament with a 68-51 win over Cabot, bringing an end to the Panthers’ 11-game winning streak, their hopes for a state title berth and the high school careers of all five senior starters.

“It was fun,” said tearful Cabot coach Jerry Bridges, who bid farewell to Adam Sterrenberg, Austin Johnson, Jack Bridges, Miles Monroe and Gary Clark. “You want it to go on forever. But we lost to a good team tonight. You don’t get to 29-0 for no reason. I’m happy for (Fayetteville coach Barry Gebhart). He’s worked hard and I wish him the best. It hurts. I’ve got five seniors in there.”

Despite a horrific first quarter in which the Panthers (23-6) missed 19 of their first 21 shots and fell behind by 18 points — a deficit which reached 40-16 late in the half — Cabot would not go gently, and rallied to eventually cut the lead to nine points. Their 19-4 run over an 8-minute span of the second and third periods eventually cut the deficit to 44-35 on Adam Sterrenberg’s step-back three-pointer with 1:10 left in the third.

But Oklahoma State-bound Fayetteville guard Fred Gulley did what he did all night — drive through the lane for lay-ups — and that was Cabot’s last gasp.

“I was proud of us early in the third quarter to come out battling to get back into it,” Bridges said. “I told them at halftime that we weren’t going to get it all back at once. But at the four-minute mark, let’s try to have it back to 14 and at the end of the third, get it to 10.

“We got there, but it just took everything we had. We just didn’t have much left in the tank after that.”

Some of that Bridges attributed to the tourney format that had Cabot playing the late game on Friday night.

“It was ridiculous how late we had to play, then turn around for this game,” he said. “That was my main concern coming in, are we going to have our legs? They can fix this format, because it does make a difference. That was a hard-fought game for us (Friday night against Springdale Har-ber). Heck, I’d just as soon come in as a three or four seed (and play earlier in the week).”

Whether it was fatigue, nerves or Fayetteville’s defensive scheme, the Panthers were off their game out of the gate on Saturday. Johnson missed three free throws eight seconds into the game and the Bulldogs responded with a pair of threes to open up an 8-0 lead. Cabot’s only bucket of the first quarter was Bridges’ three-pointer with 5:20 left in the period.

Jerry Bridges was hit with a technical after Adam Nobel’s steal and lay-up put the Bull-dogs up 13-4 at the 3:11 mark.

“I thought that was a sorry technical,” Bridges said. “I was talking to my team out there and the official came over. But I’ve got to be better than that, too. There were a lot of calls in that first quarter that made it an uphill battle for us.”

It wasn’t the only technical called on Cabot in the period, underlining the frustrations of the Panthers as they kept missing and the Bulldogs kept increasing their lead.

Monroe got his second foul with 39 seconds left, then got whistled for a technical on the play. Gulley, who finished with 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting, hit one of the two technical free throws, then concluded the period with a three-pointer and Cabot was down 24-6 after one quarter.

Sterrenberg, who finished his Cabot career with a 23-point, two-assist, three-steal performance, finally put a spark in the Panthers with a pull-up three 34 seconds into the second quarter, then added six straight free throws. But Fayetteville continued to sizzle and had its biggest lead of the night at 40-16 on post man Caleb Hogue’s lay-up with 2:31 left in the half.

Cabot, though, hit its final three shots of the half — two Alex Baker perimeter shots and a Sterrenberg steal and lay-up. Johnson, who struggled through a 1-of-9 shooting night, had a chance to draw Cabot closer, but missed a three at the buzzer and the Panthers trailed 40-22 at intermission.

After Clark opened the half with a fall-away 8-footer, Monroe became a man possessed, scoring three consecutive times on the blocks, grabbing rebounds and whittling the lead to 42-30. Sterrenberg converted a pair of charities to get it down to 10.

Cabot’s last gasp came on Sterrenberg’s three-pointer at the 2:25 mark that made it 59-46, but that was as close as the Panthers would get.

Johnson had seven points and six rebounds, while Monroe and Baker each scored six.

Cabot warmed up, but still finished at 32 percent for the game, and made only 4 of 23 from three. Fayetteville shot 54 percent and knocked down 22 of 32 free throws.

The Panthers won (with co-champion Conway) their first boys conference basketball championship and reached the state semifinals for the second straight year after missing the tournament the previous 31 seasons. None of that was lost on Bridges, despite the disappointment.

“What I want them to realize is, now we’ve got a group I can call back one day when we’re making that run again,” he said. “To come back and speak to the kids and let them know what that’s like. Those young men, you have to give them a lot of credit. They’ll have a legacy at our school. They’ll be remembered.”