TURRELL "People keep saying this is a team of destiny," Buffalo Island Central coach Bill Taylor said following the Mustangs' stunning 66-63 upset here Saturday night over the heavily-favored Turrell Rockets in the championship game of the Class AA Region 4 Tournament.
"Maybe they are right," the coach added. "I know this -- I have decided to buy into it."
One thing is certain -- the Mustangs are clearly the best 18-15 team in the state. By sweeping three tough games at Turrell, BIC has continued its amazing run that started when Taylor moved his ninth graders onto the varsity team after a great season by the Junior Mustangs.
One of those freshmen, Brandon Ballard, was a key factor in capturing the regional crown, earning MVP honors in the tournament. He was joined on the honor team by another freshman, Josh Shepard, as well as senior center Erick Lyerly.
The Mustangs now have won five straight post-season games and have earned a spot in the Class AA state tournament this week at Jessieville. They will test Gurdon in a first-round game at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
If the Mustangs win that one, they will advance to a quarterfinal game at 5:30 Friday against either Charleston or Mammoth Spring. A win there would move them to the semifinals at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
The championship game will be played at 5:15 p.m. Friday, March 8, at Pine Bluff.
The first quarter in the title game at Turrell almost defied description. The Rockets entered the game with a 37-1 mark after dismantling District 3AA-North regular-season champion Marmaduke by 52 points the night before. And, of course, the Rockets were going for the title on their home floor.
Instead of Turrell getting off to a fast start, it was the Mustangs who blistered the nets in the early going.
BIC continued its three-point barrage in the tournament by hitting five in the first quarter alone -- three by Ballard and one each by Mark Hawkins and Cal Rose.
The latter two by Ballard late in the frame gave the Mustangs a remarkable 23-3 lead, leaving the large BIC fan contingent ecstatic.
Turrell netted a free throw, but Rose came back with a bucket to put the Mustangs up 25-4 after one period.
"Of course, the great start was the key to the game," Taylor said. "It seemed that everything went our way and Turrell was a little cold."
"We came into the game thinking it was important for us to hang in there for the first four minutes, but instead everything went the other way."
Taylor said everyone believes you have to slow it down against a team such as Turrell. "But that's a philosophy from the 70s," he said.
"A team like Turrell won't let you slow it down."
He explained that his thinking was to keep the game moving vertically rather than side to side against Turrell's pressure. What he meant was that he considered it important to force the issue offensively and take good open shots.
That's exactly what happened as the Mustangs were able to penetrate and then hit open shooters outside the arc. To put it mildly, those open shooters did their job.
Ballard and Hawkins kept up the three-point pressure in the second period with Hawkins hitting two more and Ballard one.
An inside basket by Lyerly gave the Mustangs their biggest lead of the game, 35-12.
Turrell began its comeback right after that, connecting on a four-point play by hitting two free throws following an intentional foul on BIC and then a follow-up basket.
Ballard followed with a three-pointer to make it 38-16, but Turrell outscored the Mustangs 8-1 the rest of the first half and trailed 39-24 at intermission.
"Everyone in the gym knew that Turrell was going to come back," Taylor said. "You expect that of a championship-caliber team. I have great respect for their program.
"Never for a second did I think that we had the game totally in hand. As it turned out, we had just enough gas to hang on."
Second Half War
The two teams settled into a war in the second half as the Mustangs fought to hang on for the upset and the Rockets were fueled by their athletic ability and the support of their home crowd.
As Taylor noted, Turrell is a championship team, being guided by coach Irving Clay to consecutive Class A state tournament championships and a runnerup spot to conference foe Marked Tree in the Class AA title game last year.
BIC continued its remarkable shooting in the third period as Shepard and Hawkins each hit two treys in the frame.
But the Rockets heated up from outside and also started picking up points in the paint off penetration and offensive rebounds.
The Mustangs also were plagued by foul trouble as both post players, Lyerly and Billy Meeks, ended with four in the game.
It appeared the tide was turning as the Rockets' Calvin Coleman hit a pair of free throws and Joe Gibson nailed a field goal to make it 51-44 late in the third period.
But the Mustangs got a big boost on a three-point play by Rose with 34.4 seconds left and Shepard hit three free throws at the .1 mark after being fouled on a long-range effort.
The Rockets kept turning up the pressure in a frantic fourth period, but they were never able to tie the game.
After two free throws by Shepard gave the Mustangs a 62-53 lead with 4:50 showing, the Rockets rolled off eight straight points.
DeJuan Williams converted a basket on a steal, Coleman hit a big three-pointer and Leon Dyson made a field goal following another steal to make it 62-60.
Dyson was fouled with 1:19 left, but made only one of two, leaving the Mustangs on top by one.
Meeks missed a free throw, but sophomore Brett Sexton was fouled in the battle for the rebound.
He hit two crucial free throws with 56 seconds left to put BIC up, 64-61.
Phillip Lockhart made two free throws for Turrell to close it to 64-63 with 33 seconds left.
BIC ran off a lot of clock before Rose was fouled with 6.9 seconds left. He missed both charity shots and the Rockets grabbed the rebound. But a long pass was errant and Ballard picked it off for the Mustangs. He was fouled with 3.0 showing on the clock. The freshman standout canned both shots to create the final margin.
Turrell again misfired on a long pass and the tremendous game was over.
Ballard and Hawkins led BIC scoring with 16 each. Also in double figures were Shepard with 13 and Rose with 10. Other Mustang scorers were Meeks 5, Lyerly 4 and Sexton 2.
Lockhart led Turrell with 16 and Coleman added 15. Also scoring were Leon Dyson 9, Aris Dyson 8, Brown 5, Williams 5, Lowery 3 and Gibson 2.
BIC went 14 of 16 from the free throw line while Turrell was 18-27.
Coach Taylor said beating the Rockets on their home court should give his team a lot of confidence heading into the state tournament. On the other side, Clay said his team is more determined than ever following the narrow loss.
Both teams should be factors in the state tournament, especially considering that the Class AA champion the past two years has come from Region 4.
Coach Taylor noted the Mustangs were hampered in the title game with an injury to Shepard and sickness by Hawkins late in the game.
He praised the play of Meeks, who put in valuable minutes due to the foul trouble by Lyerly. The coach employed an offensive-defensive substitution pattern through much of the game for his two big players.
Taylor also was pleased with the poise shown by his young team, which used two freshmen, three sophomores, a junior and a senior throughout most of the game.
The coach said his two freshmen standouts are playing even better at the varsity level, calling them the two best ninth graders he's ever coached.
He also cited the ballhandling of Rose throughout the tournament. The senior guard had most of the pressure of ballhandling on his shoulders throughout the regular season and has responded well to the infusion of talent from junior high. The Mustangs now pose serious perimeter shooting threats and have an excellent ballhandling team. "Cal is really having fun playing basketball right now."
Taylor also said Lyerly continues to improve.
"I am trying to get some college coaches onto him," Taylor said. "He is a late bloomer and can really give someone some help down the line if he gets into a strong weight program.
"He's been a monster for us on the glass in this tournament."
The Mustangs reached the title game and earned a state tournament berth with a 62-48 win over a strong Parkin team on Friday night.
The Mustangs hit four three-pointers in the first quarter against the Tigers, two by Hawkins and one each by Ballard and Shepard.
But Parkin posed a strong inside game and stayed with the Mustangs most of the way.
The Mustangs went up 25-17 early in the second period, but the Tigers were able to close it to 29-28 at intermission.
Parkin was able to take a lead in the third period, but two three-pointers by Ballard gave his team a 45-39 margin heading into the fourth period.
The Mustangs began to take control early in the fourth period on a basket by Rose and a crucial three-pointer by Hawkins to make it 50-39.
Taylor said his team used a "soft press" against Parkin in the second half and it proved effective. The Tigers also had trouble hitting from the perimeter as BIC marched on to the 14-point win.
Ballard poured in 24 points for BIC, Lyerly added 15 and Rose had 11. Also scoring were Hawkins 9 and Shepard 3. Little had 11 and Lately 10 for Parkin.
The Mustangs opened tournament play Wednesday with an 80-61 win over defending state champion Marked Tree.
The Mustangs served notice of what the tournament would be like as they hit six three-pointers in the first quarter alone -- three by Hawkins, two by Shepard and one by Ballard.
That resulted in a 25-13 first period lead.
Brad Jones almost single-handedly kept the Indians in the game, pouring in a game-high 32 points, 16 in each half.
BIC was on top 43-27 at intermission and 59-41 after three frames.
The Mustangs completely put the game away by scoring the first seven points of the fourth quarter to go up 66-41. BIC ended with 12 three-pointers in the contest.
Shepard led BIC with 22 points. He was joined in double figures by Lyerly 19, Ballard 17 and Hawkins 15. Rose added five and Sexton had two.
Also scoring for Marked Tree were Titus Crockett 13, Tommy Brown 8, Michael Phillips 6 and Sugar Ray Jones 2.
Joining the three BIC players on the all-tournament team were Phillip Lockhart, Aris Dyson and Leon Dyson of Turrell, Josh Bateman of Marmaduke, George Dyson of Earle, Michael Lately of Parkin and Brad Jones of Marked Tree.