SPORTS >> Falcons fighting to keep pace
By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
North Pulaski had four games left entering Friday night, but the Falcons were already looking at the very real possibility of a coin flip deciding their state tournament seeding.
Little Rock McClellan handed North Pulaski its first 5A-Southeast Conference loss, 67-64 on Tuesday, to avenge the loss at North Pulaski that knocked the Lions from the No. 1 spot in the state.
McClellan’s victory evened the season series, and with both games decided by three points, the first tiebreaker, which is head-to-head competition, would go out the window.
The next tiebreaker, North Pulaski coach Raymond Cooper said, is margin of victory over conference opponents up to 10 points. Since North Pulaski and McClellan had both beaten all their other 5A-Southeast opponents by 10 or more, that tie breaker was also irrelevant entering Friday.
“So if it remains the same it would go down to a coin toss,” Cooper said.
The state tournament begins March 2 at Alma.
The Falcons played Monticello in a regularly scheduled game at home Friday, then play a makeup with Sylvan Hills tonight. North Pulaski wraps up the season with consecutive games against White Hall with the scheduled home match-up Tuesday and a makeup at White Hall on Thursday.
McClellan, which had fewer weather-related cancellations, was 23-3, 11-1 entering Friday. North Pulaski was 18-5, 9-1, making the remaining regular-season games more important in assuring a favorable state tournament schedule.
“If we win the coin toss or however it turns out, if all things remain the same, the first-place team will play Tuesday, Friday and Saturday,” Cooper said. “The second-place team plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”
The latest North Pulaski-McClellan showdown ended on a three-pointer by Lions senior guard Tevin Hammond, and the furious finish revealed the hard-fought nature of this season’s series.
North Pulaski saw its lead whittled away in the final three minutes as the Falcons scored just four points while the Lions scored on every possession in that span. North Pulaski still led with 14.5 seconds left and, anticipating McClellan’s press, tried to inbound the ball over the top.
That led to a series of physical plays, with Cooper thinking a foul should have been called when Kyron Ware was knocked down taking the inbounds pass at half court. The Falcons controlled the rebounding but had to fight through crowds for three missed shots before the Lions rebounded and Hammond hit his game-winner.
“We didn’t play defense down the stretch,” Cooper said. “We had the lead and we started playing not to lose instead of not to win.”
Cooper said the Falcons, who led by 18 at one point during their first meeting with McClellan, might have been overconfident entering the rematch and he thought that showed in practice.
But it was better to lose now than in the single-elimination state tournament, and Cooper, who led his team to a state finals loss against Greene Co. Tech last year, said he was going to try to manage his time during the stretch run and was not afraid to give his veteran team time off if needed.
“I’m just trying to make sure that we keep fresh going into the tournament,” Cooper said. “One thing I did last year, and I think just from me having experience, is last year I think I over practiced going into the deal. As a coach you want to make sure you prepare for every little thing you can possibly think of.”
Cooper wouldn’t handicap the chances of North Pulaski and McClellan meeting one more time — in the state final at Hot Springs. He just wants to make sure the Falcons hold up their end of things.
Cooper recalled getting a scare from No. 4 seed Central Arkansas Christian in the first round of the state tournament last year.
“I try not to look too far ahead because the thing about the tournament is it has a tendency to never work out the way people think it should,” Cooper said. “And very rarely do you have two teams from the same conference. We’re just trying to make sure that we don’t look ahead.”