Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

SPORTS >> Red Devils gave fans run to remember

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

Free throws won Jacksonville its first state basketball championship on March 14, but there was nothing free about them.

The Red Devils and hero guard Deshone McClure earned every shot.

McClure sank 2 of 3 free throws with 1.2 seconds left to lift the Red Devils to a 63-62 victory over Little Rock Hall at Summit Arena in Hot Springs. The team’s 6A championship is The Leader’s top sports story of 2009.

Jacksonville won its final 15 games of the season and avenged a regular-season loss to Hall in January. The rematch in the final was a thriller that would satisfy fans of just about any program with perhaps the exception of Hall.

“These guys showed a lot of heart,” Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner said.

Jacksonville rushed to an 11-1 lead, but the score was 15-14 Hall by the end of the first quarter. Jacksonville took a 27-26 lead at halftime and outscored Hall 18-10 in the third quarter to make it 45-36.

Stanley Appleby scored seven straight points to give the Red Devils their biggest lead, 52-39, midway through the fourth quarter. But the Warriors’ pressure defense began to have an effect against the turnover-prone Red Devils, who lost the ball 24 times during the game leading to 28 points by Hall.

Hall’s A.J. Walton had made two free throws for the 62-61 lead with 7.8 seconds left as the Warriors came completely back from their 13-point deficit.

But McClure, now a senior, split two defenders and got to the top of the three-point line to launch his last-second shot that missed. But David Rivers, behind McClure and reaching over, was called for the foul that sent McClure to the line for his game-winners.

“Coach told me to get the ball and don’t stop,” McClure said. “I almost lost it and I almost passed it, but Coach told me to go and don’t stop. If we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose it because of me.”

Instead, McClure won the game and the most valuable player award for his heroics and 17 points.

“I had to do it for my teammates — I had to,” said McClure, who made his first free throw, missed the second and put the Red Devils ahead to stay with his third. “After I missed that one I was thinking that I couldn’t miss another one or we’re going into overtime. I knew if we went into overtime that it was going to be a battle, so I had to hit it.”

Joyner said overtime, with Walton still on the court for Hall, would not have been a savory prospect. Walton, now at Baylor, scored a game-high 24 points, 15 over the final 5:48.

“He’s got no quit in him and he almost single-handedly carried his team to a state title,” Joyner said.

But Joyner and the Red Devils countered with a group effort.

Demetrius Harris was 9 of 14 for 20 points with 10 rebounds; Appleby had his solo run to give Jacksonville its biggest lead and his brother Raheem also contributed points; Cortrell Eskridge and Darrius Morant had two key assists apiece; Antonio Roy had seven rebounds and Antwan Lockhart made all of his three shots, including a dunk, while adding three rebounds and a block.

It was a satisfying championship because it was the Red Devils’ first, but it was also pleasing to Joyner after his team’s struggles the previous season. Jacksonville opened 3-9 but reached the state tournament, only to lose in the quarterfinals.

“We had a lot of infighting, a lot of things we were trying to work through personally,” Joyner said. “But for the most part, all year, these kids have given it up for each other. They respect each other and they’ve grown closer as teammates.

“But they’re still competitive. They want you to stop this guy, they want you to get up there and get this rebound. And they’ll get up in each other’s face and tell each other. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you handle it the right way.”

Clearly, the Red Devils did.


LONOKE FOOTBALL

The Lonoke Jackrabbits overame a 2-3 start to reach their first state championship game since 1994.

The Jackrabbits had to win 3 of 4 playoff games on the road and gambled on two intentional safeties in a playoff victory at Warren just to get to Little Rock and War Memorial Stadium, the site of the championship.

Senior running back Brandon Smith, The Leader offensive player of the year, rushed for 1,953 yards and 24 touchdowns while senior quarterback Michael Nelson emerged as a threat to run and throw.

The storybook run ended one victory short as the Jackrabbits drew private school power Shiloh Christian in the championship.

The Saints roughed up the Jackrabbits 56-20 to win their sixth title, but the loss didn’t do much to mar the season for Lonoke.

“It was still fun for us,” Smith said. “We enjoyed ourselves. We were just happy to be one of the last two teams competing for a state championship.”

LAMAR LEGALITY

A court case involving Lamar’s eligibility delayed the 3A football playoffs by one week and kept Harding Academy on ice for three because of the first-round bye the Wildcats earned for winning the 2-3A Conference.

Lamar initially had to forfeit five of its six victories because it used an ineligible player, but an injunction granted by Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Gordon McCain overturned the decision and returned the victories to Lamar.

As a result of the delay, the 3A championship game had to be moved to Conway’s Estes Stadium because of scheduled renovations at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

As it turned out, Harding Academy wouldn’t have earned a trip to either venue as it suffered its first loss in the semifinals at Fountain Lake.

Lamar was also a playoff casualty.


PRIME TIME

Cabot and Jacksonville met at Cabot’s Panther Stadium on Sept. 1 in the state’s first high school football game to be broadcast on commercial television.

It was the latest installment of the “Backyard Brawl” between the next-door rivals and anyone who couldn’t make the game had a chance to tune in.

A crew of 20, with two trucks, seven cameras and 3,000 feet of cable, decked out Panther Stadium for the broadcast on KARZ-TV Channel 42, sister station to KARK-TV Channel 4 in Little Rock.

“I think there’s been some cable access kind of stuff,” KARK assistant news director Jeff Whatley said. “But this is the first time on commercial television.”

Whatley is the brother to Jacksonville coach Mark Whatley, but the family relationship had nothing to do with the selection of Jacksonville-Cabot as the premiere matchup.

“We just know this was a good rivalry,” Jeff Whatley said.

Though renovated over the years, Panther Stadium still needed a rented generator to help handle the power needs of KARK’s production and microwave trucks.

Concerns over a possible dip in attendance at the 5,000-seat stadium were offset by a guarantee of $500 to each team.

But a near capacity crowd showed up to see Cabot beat Jacksonville 35-6 in the non-conference season-opener.


FALCONS FALTER

While Jacksonville was on its way to a 6A state basketball championship, crosstown rival North Pulaski was coming up short in its bid to be the 5A state champion.

It might have been impressive to some that the city of Jacksonville produced two state final qualifiers, but that was far from satisfying to North Pulaski, which was beaten 39-34 by Greene Co. Tech.

The Falcons shot just 19 percent (11 of 57), though Kyron Ware was a bright spot with 19 points.

Behind Ware, the Falcons rallied from a 24-13 deficit with 3:47 left in the third quarter to within 24-23 with 12 seconds to go in the period.

But North Pulaski missed all five of its fourth-quarter three-point attempts.

“Of course it was our goal to win it,” North Pulaski coach Raymond Cooper said after his team finished the year 25-7. “But they have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m just as proud of them as I could be.”




THIRD SETBACK

Getting to a state championship game once is quite a feat.

Getting there three times would have to be considered something special, except after their third straight trip the Lonoke Lady Jackrabbits still went home without the winner’s trophy as Shiloh Christian won 51-45 on March 12.

Lonoke became the seventh Arkansas girls team to go to the final three straight years.

Only two other teams, the Greenland girls and the Harrison boys, reached three consecutive championships and lost them all.

This year’s setback came largely because of Shiloh Christian power forward Megan Herbert, who had 26 points, 14 in the fourth quarter.

Lonoke led 37-35 after a basket by Ashleigh Himstedt with 3:25 to go, but Lonoke was already in foul trouble and Herbert took over and put her team ahead to stay with a layup with 2:05 left.

“All I know that we can do is dig, scratch, claw and fight to come back,” Lonoke coach Nathan Morris said.