The junior high district tournament championship of the 3AA North Conference featured a rematch of last year finalists, the defending champion and unbeaten Buffalo Island Central Lady Mustangs and the Rector Lady Cougars.
Last year it was the Mustangs who came out on top, but this year Rector exacted revenge with a 38-37 come-from-behind victory to hand the Lady Mustangs their first loss of the season and give the Lady Cougars the tournament championship.
The title game was played Saturday night at Walnut Ridge before a packed gymnasium.
The Lady Mustangs broke out on top early and led for most of the game. BIC led 8-6 after the first quarter and 16-12 at the half, before taking a 25-20 lead into the final quarter. BIC built up seven-point leads on three occasions, the last coming early in the fourth quarter, 27-20, after a bucket from all-conference guard Jessica Shepard, who had a game high 23 points.
But that's when Rector began making its comeback. All-conference guard Lauren Faulkner, who led Rector with 12 points, nailed a jumper and was fouled, and when she made the free throw, the lead was cut to 27-23 with 4:36 to play. Hannah Parsley then hit another bucket and the lead was two, 27-25.
BIC then scored the next three points to stretch the lead back to 30-25. Following a pair of buckets by each squad, Lady Cougar Skye Shepard made two free throws and then Parsley followed with two more and Rector drew within one point, 32-31, with 2:15 to go. After Lady Mustang Jessica Shepard's free throw made the score 33-31, Rector's Abbe McCarroll tied the game with a two-pointer.
Then came what may have been the key moment of the contest as BIC's Shepard was tagged with a technical foul after being whistled for a traveling violation. Faulkner went to the line and made both free throws for Rector to give the Lady Cougars a 35-33 lead with 1:40 to play. After a Jera Ashabranner free throw made the score 35-34, Rector went into a delay game and forced BIC to finally foul, sending Rector's Shepard to the line, where she made one of two free throws, giving the Lady Cougars a 36-34 lead with less than 30 seconds left to play.
BIC got the ball back, but misfired from the field. Rector rebounded and McCarroll was fouled, where she went to the line and hit her two biggest free throws of the year, giving the Lady Cougars a 38-34 lead with only 4.5 seconds to go. BIC's Shepard then hit a three at the buzzer, but it was too little, too late, as Rector held on, dropping BIC to 29-1 on the season.
"I thought the biggest keys in the game were our offensive rebounding, and the fact that we didn't get down when things didn't go our way early," said Rector coach Shane Robinson. "We kept fighting, playing hard, that's all you can ask kids to do. We made our free throws late that got us back in the game, which was another big key."
"Lauren (Faulkner) did a good job handling the ball and made some good decisions. Abbe (McCarroll) is a go-getter. She busts her tail and seems to come up in the right spots. She hit a big shot to tie the game late and made some big free throws. It feels real good. Our kids deserve this. This is a big win for us. Coach Kinard does a good job and his kids played real hard as well. It's sad that someone had to lose," concluded Robinson.
BIC coach Mike Kinard said, "We just didn't get it done tonight. They really hurt us on the offensive boards. They just kept getting second and third shots. I felt we did a poor job of blocking them out. Another big key was the fact that they hit 12 free throws in the fourth quarter and we missed five. The little things got us beat tonight. We talk about finishing every game and tonight we just didn't finish well."
"I'm real proud of the girls. We had a great year. But I feel this team will learn from this loss and bigger and better things will happen for them in the future," concluded Kinard.
Rounding out the scoring for Rector was Shepard, who had 11 points. McCarroll scored nine, Hannah Parsley chipped in four, while Jordan Cornelison added two.
The rest of BIC's scoring went as follows: Stephanie Baldridge scored five, Kasey Garrett had four, Ashabranner netted three, Ashley Tate pitched in two, while Lauren Smith added one to round out the Lady Mustang scoring.
Rector, which finished 18-23 at the line, including 12-13 in the final period, finishes with a 19-7 record on the year. BIC managed only 11-21 at the line, as they fell to 29-1 on the season.
Rector defeated Walnut Ridge, 47-25, and Maynard, 36-29, to reach the title game.
BIC's road to the finals began with a 40-28 victory over CRA. The Lady Mustangs were led by Baldridge, who scored 15, while Shepard had 11. Also scoring were Ashabranner 8, Olive 5 and Smith 1.
In the semifinals, BIC knocked off archrival Riverside, 42-27, behind Shepard's 16 points. Garrett joined them in double figures with 10. Also scoring were Baldridge 6, Smith 4, Tate 4 and Ashabranner 2.
BIC jumped out to a 6-1 lead and stretched it to 12-5 at the end of the first quarter. Baldridge had two big threepointers in the period.
Riverside closed the gap to three points in the second period, but two baskets by Shepard down the stretch helped the Lady Mustangs move ahead 18-13 at the halftime break.
BIC started to move well ahead in the third period, easing to a 31-22 margin.
The winners scored the first six points of the final frame to put the game out of reach. That run included baskets by Smith and Shepard and two free throws by Garrett.
The regular-season champion Lady Mustangs placed four players on the all-conference team -- Jessica Shepard, Jera Ashabranner, Kasey Garrett and Stephanie Baldridge. Rector placed three players on the team -- Lauren Faulkner, Abbe McCarrol and Jordan Cornelison. Conference runnerup Maynard also placed four players on the team -- Ashley Kerley, Amanda Moore, Kim Bray and Megan Flanagan. Marmaduke's Jade Brinkley and Lindsey Hickson, Riverside's Marissa Johnson and Kelsey Turner, Walnut Ridge's Jessica Jarrett and Rachel Looney, and CRA's Bethany Johnson, as well as Bay's Natasha Coffee, rounded out the remainder of the all-conference team.