Lions Roar! Earn ticket to state championship game
J.J. Helton and Blake Wheeler nailed back to back three pointers late in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's state semifinal matchup at Jessieville, propelling Manila to a thrilling 53-47 come from behind victory over Riverview.
The victory sends the Lions to the 3A State Championship game Thursday afternoon at Hot Springs against conference rival Earle. It will be the fifth meeting of the year between the two conference rivals, with Earle holding a 3-1 advantage entering the 5:15 p.m. contest.
"There wasn't a whole lot to be made on the inside tonight, against their big 6'8" center, so we had to depend on the three pointer to win the game," said Manila coach Bill Taylor. "J.J. Helton's fearless three pointer that tied the game and Blake Wheeler's three that gave us the lead was the difference. Every time we needed a three pointer tonight Blake gave it to us. I thought Garrett Scott saved his best game of the year for tonight. To get to the state championship game, you have to have someone different come up big every game. It can't always be the same person. It takes a team effort. That is what we have had this week."
"I was ready for the challenge tonight," said Scott. "I am just glad we made it to the state championship game. I never would have thought this after last season."
The Lions went on a 10-0 run after falling behind early in the game to grab a 15-12 edge after the opening quarter. Wheeler, who ended the first period with a three pointer, began the second stanza with another trey to push the Lion lead to 18-12. Kam Ashabranner popped a three pointer at the 2:42 mark to give Manila its largest lead of the night, 25-17. The two teams traded buckets to close the first half, with Manila leading 27-19 heading into intermission.
A Blake Wheeler three pointer at the 4:46 mark of the third quarter gave Manila a 34-25 advantage, but the Raiders fought back, getting consecutive three pointers by Kienan Lee and Jordan Perry to slice the margin to six. Donald Teague connected on back to back buckets from the inside to cut the Manila lead to 37-35, but Ashabranner's three pointer with two seconds left in the third quarter gave the Lions a 40-35 lead entering the final frame.
Riverview seized the momentum midway through the fourth quarter, and finally tied the game on a Donald Colvin three pointer with 4:48 left in the contest. Taylor Smith gave Riverview its first lead of the game since early in the first quarter, 44-42, with a driving lay-up. Ashabranner answered with a pair of free throws to tie the contest, but the Raiders connected on three foul shots, one by Smith and two by Perry, to take a 47-44 lead with 2:24 to go.
The Lions worked the ball around the perimeter and found Helton all alone at the top of the key, and the 5'10" junior drilled his only bucket of the night from beyond the three point arc to tie the game 47-47 at the 2:07 mark. A Riverview miss gave Manila possession, and Wheeler uncorked his seventh three pointer of the night, giving the Lions the lead for good, 50-47, with 1:33 remaining. The Lion defense clamped down on the Raiders, holding Riverview scoreless the rest of the way.
Ashabranner finished off Riverview, making three of four free throws in the final 15 seconds, setting off a wild victory celebration from both players and fans.
"I knew after I hit my first shot it was going to be a good night," said senior guard Blake Wheeler. "I got a good roll on the shot. We are going to Hot Springs next week to play for a state championship. It means everything to me."
It was a remarkable turnaround for the Lions, who won only three games last season. The victory pushes Manila's record to 28-6 on the year. It will be Taylor's fourth state final appearance as a coach. The Bay native holds an undefeated 3-0 record in state championship games.
Wheeler led all scorers with 23 points while Ashabranner pumped in 17 more. Scott scored eight while Helton and Wallace added three and two points respectively. The Lions finished the night five of seven from the foul stripe but hit 10-19 three pointers, including a seven of 10 performance by Wheeler.
Colvin paced the Raiders with 14 points while Lee added 10. Riverview made 10 of 16 free throws, but shot a miserable five of 23 from beyond the three point arc.
The Lions finished with a 29-25 rebounding advantage and shot a blistering 48 percent from the field.
The state tournament appearance will be Manila's first since winning the 1962 state title.
"I want everyone to know how the town of Manila has come together as one," said Taylor. "From the cheerleaders to the administration to the fans, I appreciate everyone so much. They have been great."