SPORTS >> Falcons knock off top-ranked Lions
By JASON KING
It remains to be seen whether North Pulaski will earn a No. 1 overall ranking in the state high school basketball polls, but one thing is clear — the top team will no longer be Little Rock McClellan.
That’s because the Falcons held on to beat their 5A-Southeast Conference rivals 76-73 on Tuesday night at the Falcons Nest in front of a capacity crowd and many of the state’s major media outlets.
North Pulaski (14-4, 6-0) built a 38-23 lead with a dominant first half and maintained its lead through the third quarter. But once McClellan (16-3, 5-1) began to find open shots in the fourth quarter, the comeback was on.
The Falcons hit just enough free throws down the stretch to stay in front, with two free throws by cool-headed freshman I.J. Ready in the final three seconds that iced it for North Pulaski.
“Boy, you talk about weathering the storm, it was a storm — lightning, thunder — everything,” Falcons coach Raymond Cooper said. “They got real physical with us down the stretch, and we didn’t do a good job with handling it. We’ve got to get better with closing games out.
“It was a good win, but there are a lot of improvement points we’re going to take from this game.”
McClellan entered the game ranked No. 1 in the state while North Pulaski was ranked third. That, along with news coverage of the contest by three of the four local television stations, underscored the importance of the game for both teams.
But most importantly for Cooper, it gave his Falcons sole possession first in the 5A-Southeast.
“A conference win; that’s the way we look at it,” Cooper said. “You know, two years ago, they would have stormed the court. Guys would have been jumping around and just been so excited about one win. We’ve got a whole half of the conference left to go. And so that’s the way we’re looking at it.
“This was a good win, and the rankings are very good, but at the end of the year, the rankings don’t mean anything.”
McClellan got few second chances in the first half and most of the third quarter thanks to strong defensive rebounding by Falcons senior forward DaQuan Bryant. But Bryant was living on borrowed time once he picked up his fourth foul in the final 30 seconds of the third.
Bryant was able to hang around most of the fourth quarter until he was called for his fifth foul on McClellan’s D’juan Smith with 1:32 left .
“It’s amazing. As big as he is, he gets pounded on all game long,” Cooper said. “He drives to the hole and they pound him, they pound him, and it’s hard to explain to him why, when he touches somebody, that it’s a foul.
“I guess maybe because of his size that they allow that, but I don’t know a way of telling him how to handle it.”
Kyron Ware helped the Falcons establish their outside game early with a trio of first-quarter three-pointers in a 59-second span. Ware hit his first three-pointer with 2:12 left in the quarter to put North Pulaski up 19-12, took an assist from Aaron Cooper for his next three-pointer with 1:33 to go and got his third with 1:13 left to give the Falcons a 22-12 lead heading into the second quarter.
Ware, a senior forward, went on to lead North Pulaski with 18 points.
“He’s got a knack for hitting big shots,” Cooper said. “He’s got a knack for knowing when we need them and he steps up. And tonight he got us sparked at the beginning, he got us on a roll, got us some momentum.”
The rough nature of the game eventually played into North Pulaski’s favor when McClellan committed its 10th foul with 1:37 left in the game. At that point, the Falcons were 4 of 6 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, but the Lions were forced to send them to the line in the final 1:30.
“Tonight, we did a decent job at the free-throw line,” Cooper said. “But we’ve got to do better, because we could have closed the game out at the free-throw line.”
Ware had been consistent for the Falcons most of the night, but missed two free throws with 37 seconds left. The Lions had pulled to within 72-65 with a three-pointer by Ricky Allen, and Ware’s misses at the line led to another McClellan three-pointer, this time from Tevin Hammond to close the gap to 72-68.
The Lions continued to press, but Cooper, Ready and senior guard Joe Agee used their speed to combat the defense. The Falcons turned the ball over only three times in the fourth quarter, all of them on rushed passes.
“I wasn’t worried about being pressed, because we practice against the press every day,” Cooper said. “And their press is almost identical to ours. We didn’t press as much as we normally do, because we wanted to attack their press. We wanted to focus our energy on attacking it, and making them pay for pressing us.”
Aaron Cooper added 14 points for the Falcons, while Agee and Bryan Coulson both finished with 11. Bryant finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds, eight of which were defensive.
Michael Bradley led McClellan with 22 points, Allen scored 18 and Hammond scored 15.