Mustangs claim back-to-back NEA titles
It wasn't as easy as a lot of the so-called experts thought it would be, but the Buffalo Island Central Mustangs showed why they were the number one seed and defending Northeast Arkansas Invitational Tournament Champions, as they captured their second straight NEA Title Thursday night with a gutsy 48-44 come from behind victory over last year's 3A-4A-5A NEA Tournament Champion East Poinsett County, who had dropped down to the A-AA division for this year's tournament.
BIC began the tournament with two relatively easy victories, first over Biggers-Reyno and then over Swifton, but the Mustangs found themselves in two dog-fights before they were able to secure the school's sixth overall NEA Championship.
In Thursday night's championship game, the Mustangs had to rally from five down with only four minutes left to pull out the victory. Leading 42-37, EPC had the basketball, but then proceeded to commit five turnovers in their next six possessions, as the Mustangs turned up their full court pressure defense for their dramatic comeback. Junior Cord Rose, playing with four fouls, had not scored entering the final frantic minutes, but led a Mustang defensive charge that sparked BIC's comeback. The Mustangs outscored EPC 9-2 down the stretch, as Rose nailed four pressure packed free throws to lead the Pony stampede.
BIC looked as though they would walk away with the championship as they bolted to a 16-11 first quarter lead and then stretched their margin to 30-19 by halftime.
But first year EPC Coach Joseph Simmons' team proceeded to outscore BIC 18-4 in the third period to take a 37-34 lead entering the final frame. The Warriors, who fell to 11-4 on the season, looked as though they would pull off the upset, but couldn't hang onto the basketball down the stretch, as the Mustangs forced one turnover after another.
BIC won the championship despite shooting a miserable 29 per cent from the field, including a paltry 4-22 performance from behind the three point arc. However, BIC used a tenacious defense, forcing EPC into 16 turnovers, while hitting clutch free throws to secure the victory.
After Rose made two free throws for a 47-44 lead with 1.6 seconds left, EPC tried a desperation shot from their own end of the floor, but the shot fell hopelessly short. BIC scored one last point on a free throw by Brooks Taylor, who led all scorers with 25 points.
Brandon Ballard scored eight points, Derek Rolland netted seven, while Josh Nettles and Rose scored four apiece for the 22-3 Mustangs. BIC managed to hit 12-18 free throws on the night.
EPC was led by Keun Joplin with 11 points and Ked Madden with 10. The Warriors were 7-13 from the line and nailed five treys on the night.
"We played pretty well in the first half," said BIC Head Coach Bill Taylor. "But everything we did was wrong in the third quarter and half of the fourth. Cord (Rose) brought energy we weren't getting from anyone else and that sparked us. I give him a great deal of credit for our win tonight. We took some bad shots and didn't play with the passion I thought we needed for a game of this magnitude. But when it got tough, we made plays when we had to make them. We are very happy to be NEA Champions for the second straight year."
"We knew EPC would come out storming in the second half," said 6'3" junior guard Brooks Taylor. "Cord really brought it defensively. We all kind of played bad to start the second half, and then later Cord never gave up. He wouldn't let us quit. He sparked us and we fed off him. I forced a lot of shots and got frustrated, but finally started getting inside a little, which helped late in the game. It's nice to win a second straight NEA. Playing beside Brandon (Ballard) also helps a lot," stated Taylor.
"Cord brought it," said 6'4" senior guard Brandon Ballard. "He was the spark plug. He caused turnovers, pressured EPC, and forced them into bad decisions. Luckily we capitalized on the turnovers. This is so sweet to win two straight NEA titles. Growing up as a kid, all I ever dreamed of was winning this thing. BIC won the NEA when I was in sixth grade, and I thought it was the biggest thing in the world. To win two in a row and in my senior year, makes it really special."
"We made some adjustments at half, because I had some guys in foul trouble," said EPC Coach Joseph Simmons. "We had to switch on who was guarding Ballard and Taylor. They are two great players. It hurts when you can't put your best defenders on them, but I have some good athletes, smart players. All of them can play defense. I am disappointed that we didn't come out with the win, but we showed a lot of heart and character coming from behind after a poor first half. We didn't play smart when BIC pressured us and made some bad passes, bad decisions. But all in all, our kids played great and I am very, very proud of them."
The Mustangs reached the finals by coming from 16 down to defeat a tough Cave City team, 71-62, Wednesday night. Brooks Taylor poured in a game high 38 points, while Brandon Ballard scored 21 and Hunter Smith came off the bench, hitting three treys to finish with 10 points. Josh Nettles was the only other Mustang to score, finishing with two points. BIC was 19-23 from the free throw line and hit eight treys.
Cave City led 19-10 after the first quarter and stretched their margin to 38-25 at the half. But the second half belonged to the Mustangs, as BIC outscored the Cavemen 46-24 in the final two periods to advance to the championship game.
Cave City was led by Jon Hodges who scored 17 points while Justin Barr added 14 more. Cave City also shot well from the free throw line, connecting on 20-24, while nailing six treys on the night.
BIC placed three players on the NEA Tournament team in seniors Brandon Ballard and Josh Nettles and junior Brooks Taylor.
BIC returns to action Tuesday night as they host Hughes at Monette before returning to 3AA North Conference play on Friday when they travel to Rector.