SPORTS >> Falcons looking for groove
It’s not point production, upcoming opponents or even North Pulaski’s record that concerns Falcons coach Ray Cooper at this point in the season.
What does concern Cooper, after the Falcons beat the Beebe Badgers 77-61 on Tuesday, is the lack of intensity he is seeing from his team as North Pulaski prepares to enter its toughest stretch of play in the 5A-Southeast Conference.
While Tuesday’s performance was good enough to beat the Badgers, it still wasn’t exactly what Cooper was looking for from a team that reached the 5A state final last season.
“Right now, we haven’t been playing with the passion and hunger we need,” Cooper said. “Last year, we had that intensity; this year is different. We play well in spurts and then dial it back. I’m holding them accountable for that.”
The Falcons are entering a stretch of four critical 5A-Southeast match-ups against Crossett, Sylvan Hills, Monticello and finally, multi-talented Little Rock McClellan, which has proved dominant in early conference games.
But it is not the name on the schedule Cooper is concerned with.
“I don’t look at who’s next; I’m just looking at the calendar,” Cooper said. “There’s only about 5-6 weeks of basketball left.
You have to peak somewhere in that time and hit your stride. You have to get in a flow, and we haven’t been able to find it. I want us to hit a stretch where we start to see a playoff mentality.”
The first indication that Cooper was looking to make a statement came when the starting lineup was announced in the pregame and regular starters Aaron Cooper, Kyron Ware and Bryan Colson were sent to the sideline.
Seniors Joe Agee and Christian Knight, along with junior Alonte Mitchell, led the Falcons (10-4, 2-0) in the early going until Ware and company checked in midway through the first quarter.
“You can tell that how you practice carries into a game,” Ray Cooper said. “That was what led to a different starting lineup for us tonight. We went with the people who were giving us the most in practice.”
Despite the different look early, North Pulaski still established the outside game with three-point shots by Braylon Spicer and Agee. Spicer took the opening tip for a three-pointer, and Agee added his trey with 6:47 left in the quarter to give the Falcons a 6-1 lead.
The Badgers were significantly out-sized and did not have near the depth as the Falcons, but still managed to keep it competitive most of the way.
Sophomore forward Braden Jones cut North Pulaski’s lead to 14-11 with a wide-open inside shot off an assist by junior guard Devonte Young with 1:38 left in the first quarter.
Jones hit the first of two free throws to make it a two-point game with 58 seconds left before a Ware basket and an Aaron Cooper free throw extended the Falcons’ lead to five.
The margin grew very little for the Falcons in the second quarter as the Badgers battled to stay within 37-29 at halftime.
“That’s another thing,” Ray Cooper said, taking note of Beebe’s effort. “We didn’t go to the playoffs two years ago, and last year we were able to make it to the state championship game. Now, teams have got us in their sights. They play us with a greater intensity, and with more of a chip on their shoulders. We haven’t identified that yet.”
North Pulaski finally began to establish the tempo to start the third quarter. Aaron Cooper began the second half with three of his game-high 23 points with 7:35 left to give the Falcons their first double-digit lead of the night, 39-29.
Agee followed with his second three-pointer and Cooper struck from three-point range again with 4:34 left in the period to stretch the lead to 47-33.
What followed next was a bit embarrassing but mostly humorous for young sophomore Beebe guard K.J. Maples, who came out of a timeout attempting to score on the wrong end of the court.
Maples did not make either attempt and was able to laugh it off with the other players and fans once he realized his error. The only person who did not seem amused was first-year Badgers coach Chris Parker.
Beebe junior Scot Gowen, the Badgers’ quarterback in football, got the hard points inside most of the night. Gowen was not hesitant to play physically with the larger Falcons and came away with 16 points while Young led the team with 22.
Knight and Colson each added 12 points for North Pulaski while Spicer and Ware both finished with eight.
Beebe hosted Monticello Friday night and will play at McClellan on Tuesday.