SPORTS >> Lady Wildcats standing tall
By JASON KING
Leader sports writer
ROSE BUD — Getting big resulted in a big victory for Harding Academy on Friday at Rambler Arena.
The Lady Wildcats lost their two previous 2-3A Conference matchups with the England Lady Lions, but came up big, literally, when it counted most in the district finals with a 59-57 triumph to earn the No. 1 seed for this week’s 3A Region 2 tournament at Riverview.
England overcame a six-point, fourth-quarter deficit to get within 58-57 in the final two minutes. McKenzie Miller made a free throw with 26 seconds left and Janeka Watkins missed a last-second shot for England as Harding Academy held on.
The Lady Wildcats take on 5-3A No. 4 seed Bauxite in the regional today at 4 p.m.
Harding Academy senior post players Megan Pack, 5-11, and Ariel English, 6-1, alternated frequently through the first half, but both graced the court at the same time two minutes into the third quarter and remained a package deal for the duration.
That took away second-chance opportunities for the Lady Lions (24-4), and allowed the Lady Wildcats (18-8) to control the interior.
“From the middle of the third quarter on, we went to two post kids,” Lady Wildcats coach Rusty Garner said. “We were getting beat inside; getting killed in the paint. We couldn’t seem to grab a rebound. I thought Ariel English and Megan Pack both rebounded it really well.”
Pack scored 12 points inside, while English pulled down four critical defensive rebounds in the second half and found open teammates for three assists. English also pulled Harding Academy even with England on a pair of inside baskets in the final minute of the third quarter, including a third-attempt shot with 15 seconds left to make it 42-42.
The Lady Wildcats got the biggest lead of the game for either team with 2:38 left to play when Pack hit a pair of free throws to make it 56-50, but Lady Lions sophomore guard Jameka Watkins, one of England’s talented Watkins twins, hit two foul shots and followed that with a jumper in the lane to cut it to two.
Molly Koch then went the length of the court on the inbound for Harding Academy to score two of her season-high 13 points, but a three-pointer by Janeka Watkins cut it to 58-57 with 1:24 left.
The Lady Wildcats kept possession for close to a minute before McKenzie Miller was sent to the free-throw line with 26 seconds left. Miller hit the first free throw but missed the second and Tanesha Wiley grabbed the rebound for England.
The Lady Lions put the ball in Janeka Watkins’ hands for their last shot, but she burned valuable time on the perimeter looking for openings and could not shake pressure from Koch. That resulted in an off-balance shot that fell short off the rim and into Pack’s hands as the buzzer sounded.
“Really, we caught a break, because they were out of timeouts,” Garner said. “Janeka’s up top with the ball, and I think she kind of panicked with eight seconds left. I saw her look up, and it was late in the clock. I thought Molly Koch for us defensively did a good job of defending her, because that girl’s going to score.”
Harding Academy senior Anna Bangs was another key inside for the Lady Wildcats. Bangs led all scorers with 25 points, including six straight points starting with 2:05 left in the third quarter that cut England’s lead to 40-38.
“It validates that we’re who we hoped we were,” Garner said. “We played them in early January at home and got beat by three.
We missed a bunch of free throws, thought we should have beaten them. Went to England, got destroyed, so we had it in the back of our mind that we thought we could beat those guys. Now we can walk out of here and say that now we know on a good night, we can play with England.”
Janeka Watkins led England with 18 points and Wiley had 12.
The Lady Lions are the No. 2 seed out of District 2 and will play 5-3A No. 3 seed Mayflower Thursday at 7 p.m.