SPORTS >> Searcy falls in state: Lady Wildcats plus fourth quarter too much for Lady Lions in final
By JASON KING
HOT SPRINGS — Speed out-dueled size Saturday as Watson Chapel claimed the 6A state championship over Searcy, 51-42, at Summit Arena.
The Lady Wildcats (25-5) lost the rebounding battle to the taller Lady Lions in the first half, but they found more second-chance opportunities with offensive rebounding in the final two quarters.
It was the final high-school game for Searcy seniors Lauren Harrison, Kristen Celsor and Caleigh Woodruff, who were trying to give Searcy its first basketball state championship since the Lady Lions won the AAA classification in 1985.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of these three seniors,” Lady Lions coach Michelle Birdsong said. “All year long, they competed hard.
They’ve been leaders on the floor and leaders off the floor. I’m proud of this team and everything they’ve been able to accomplish this year. And they’ve given me a lot of firsts as a coach. It’s the first time as a coach I’ve made it to the state final.”
Junior guard Britteny Gill earned MVP honors for Watson Chapel with an 11-point, 13-rebound performance while forward Nashia James matched her teammate on the scoreboard with 11 points.
Searcy (25-6) stayed in the game by out-rebounding Watson Chapel 20-13 in the first half, with 16 of its rebounds coming on the defensive end. But the Lady Wildcats stepped up their efforts in the second half and wound up with a 39-36 rebounding advantage.
Watson Chapel pulled down 12 offensive rebounds in the second half and converted enough into points to take control of the game in the fourth quarter.
Both teams struggled to find shooting consistency. Watson Chapel’s defense also made it difficult for Searcy to move the ball inside to post Harrison and forward Celsor.
Searcy did not go deep into its bench, but the two reserves the Lady Lions used made vital contributions in the first half.
Chelsey Butler pulled down a defensive rebound that led to a basket and free throw with less than two seconds left in the first half to tie the game at 7-7.
Lindsey Hanshaw then hit a three-point basket with 2:29 left in the first half to give Searcy an 18-15 lead, its first since the opening three minutes.
Butler finished with seven points and six rebounds and Hanshaw had five points.
The Lady Lions’ slim 34-33 lead at the end of the third quarter did not hold up as the Lady Tigers started the fourth with a 6-0 run that gave them a 39-34 lead with 5:52 left in the game.
“I thought to start the game, we weren’t able to accomplish what we needed to as far as opening up the game,” Watson Chapel coach Leslie Byrd said. “We were getting plenty of shots, we just weren’t getting them in the basket. Second half, we started rebounding better; I believe they out-rebounded us in the first half.”
Searcy did not make the most of its possessions in the fourth quarter once both teams began to get in foul trouble.
Watson Chapel post player Alexi Rollins drew her fourth foul in the first minute of the final period, and the Lady Lions tried to capitalize with a series of off-balance lay-up attempts from the side in an effort to draw a fifth foul.
But that foul never came, and Rollins scored five of her nine points in the last eight minutes to help the Lady Wildcats pull away.
Celsor, 5-11, did not see any action in the second quarter after picking up two quick fouls in the first.
She scored Searcy’s first point on a free throw, but did not make a field goal until there was 3:12 left in the third quarter when she hit a baseline runner to give the Lady Lions a 29-28 lead.
“I definitely expected them to be up on us the whole game,” Celsor said of Watson Chapel’s defense. “And I was very frustrated and I let it get to my head, obviously, and I sat out most of the first half.”
Harrison, 6-2, led the Lady Lions with 12 points, 10 of which came in the second half. She pulled Searcy within 44-40 with 2:06 left on a three-point shot, but picked up her fifth foul with 35 seconds remaining.
“We thought that was the key,” Byrd said of her team’s defensive pressure. “Of course, we think that’s what got us here this far.
Our goal was to put pressure on their guards. We did not want them to lob it over our head to their big girls, and I don’t recall them doing that one time.”
The Lady Wildcats used their quickness to create turnovers, both from their full-court press and open-court steals. They had 12 steals in all, including four by Tatiyana Brown.
“It was important, because they had the height advantage,” Byrd said. “Coach Birdsong and I have talked yesterday and some today. We both knew it was height against quickness.”
Searcy surrendered 20 turnovers to Watson Chapel’s 13.
“I knew that their quickness would cause us problems,” Birdsong said. “They’re very quick, and defensively, they’re probably one of the best defensive teams we’ve played against.”
Celsor scored seven points and had six rebounds for Searcy, her lowest totals of the tournament. She was 1 of 12 shooting while Harrison was 5 of 14.
“You don’t think about how good you’re actually doing getting second place,” Harrison said. “But it takes a lot to get to second place. We’re proud of where we ended, but it’s not where we want to be.”