Town Crier Sports Staff
It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. The Buffalo Island Central Lady Mustangs came into the Class 2A State Tournament at Danville riding the momentum of last week's 2A-North Regional Basketball Tournament Championship with high hopes of bringing home the state title. But the underdog Hazen Lady Hornets, the fourth seed from the East Regional, had other ideas, pulling off a stunning 52-41 upset of the top seed from the North.
The defeat was a bitter disappointment for Coach Stan Fowler's Lady Mustangs, who during the regular season had claimed a share of the 2A-3 conference championship in addition to winning the prestigious Northeast Arkansas Invitational Tournament.
"We had a poor shooting performance and it just seemed like Hazen wanted it more than we did today," said Fowler. "The officials allowed the game to be real physical, but that's okay. It was that way for both teams, but we just didn't adjust. We shot 4-26 from the three point line, and that was a backbreaker. We are usually a good offensive rebounding team, but we weren't today."
Hazen made it clear early that despite being the heavy underdog, they were ready to play. The Lady Hornets jumped to a quick 4-0 lead. The two teams battled on even terms the rest of the quarter before Hazen's Chelsey Raney drilled a three pointer to give the Lady Hornets a 12-10 lead after the first period.
BIC's Kasey Garrett hit a pair of free throws to open the second quarter, tying the game, but the Lady Hornets took control, outscoring the Lady Mustangs 11-1 to grab a 23-13 lead with 1:06 left in the first half. In desperate need to some offense, Garrett drove the lane for two at the 22 second mark, and following a Lady Hornet miss, Jessica Shepard raced the length of the floor and scooped in a lay-up at the buzzer, cutting the Hazen lead to 23-17 at the half.
The Lady Mustangs carried their late first half momentum into the early part of the third quarter, scoring the first six points to tie the game 23-23 at the 5:26 mark. Shepard started the scoring with a driving lay-in, followed by a bucket from Sammi Fowler. Shepard scored again from the inside to complete a 10-0 run, and the Mustangs looked poised to take control of the game.
The Lady Hornets broke their drought when senior forward Megan Aaron, who led Hazen with 23 points, banked home a five-footer for a 25-23 lead with 5:11 left in the quarter. Keira Smith followed with a spinning five-foot runner, pushing the Hornet lead to 27-23, but BIC came right back when Fowler scored from the inside, before Shepard drilled a three pointer from the left wing, to give BIC their last lead, 28-27, with 3:54 to go.
Raney put Hazen back on top for good with a 10-foot bank shot, and after a Mustang free throw, Aaron closed out the quarter with her only three pointer of the game to give the Lady Hornets a 32-29 lead heading into the final frame.
Aaron scored the first two points of the final period and then stuck in a missed free throw by Smith, giving Hazen a 36-29 lead with 5:34 left in the game. Shepard tried to rally the Mustangs when she ripped a three pointer from the top of the key, but Hazen's Dot Harris answered with a three pointer of her own to keep the Lady Hornet lead at seven, 39-32, with 4:24 remaining. That would be Hazen's last field goal of the game, but the Lady Hornets nailed 13-16 free throws down the stretch to seal the Lady Mustang's fate.
"The girls played team ball, played hard, and did a good job," said Hazen Coach Jason Stewart. "I've got a good group of girls. They executed their offense tonight and they have a lot of heart. That was a good team we played. We were lucky to get away with a win."
"Hazen played well, they hustled from start to finish, and they hit their foul shots," said Fowler. "They hit 17-23 free throws, which is what we usually do. We shot okay, but the fouls just weren't being called. When we played in the district it was called tight and when we got here today it wasn't, but it went both ways, so I'm not complaining about the officiating at all. Basically we just had an off shooting night. But the girls had a really good season. I really enjoyed being with them and coaching them. We had a lot of fun. I am really going to miss my seniors. We attained some of our main goals, which was to win the conference, the NEA Championship and the Regional, plus making it to the state. I was guilty of being overconfident for this game. I think we thought we would pull it out at the end like we usually do, and we didn't this time. Hopefully we will learn from this."
Shepard was the only Lady Mustang in double figures, scoring 21 points while coming away with 10 steals before fouling out. Fowler scored seven points, Garrett netted five, Lauryn Smith and Katie Olive tallied three points apiece while Ashley Tate added two. BIC finished 11-14 from the foul line and hit four three pointers on the day. The Lady Mustangs finished the season with a 27-8 record.
Aaron led Hazen with 23 points while Smith added 10 more. The Lady Hornets were 17-23 from the foul line and connected on four three pointers.