District champs! Highlanders top Panthers in gritty title game
By Scott Loftis
Friday’s championship game of the 2A-1 district tournament at Yellville might be described as an ugly game. But it was downright gorgeous for the Eureka Springs Highlanders.
Senior guard Garrett Cross scored 19 points as the Highlanders beat Yellville-Summit 32-20 for the tournament title.
Eureka Springs (30-5) won its 16th consecutive game and earned a No. 1 seed in this week’s 2A West Regional Tournament at Danville.
The Highlanders will face the host team,
Danville, at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Eureka Springs coach Brian Rambo said his team welcomed the style of game that unfolded against Yellville-Summit.
“It was an ugly, grind-it-out kind of game, but it was exactly the kind of game we wanted,” Rambo said.
The Highlanders beat Yellville-Summit for the third time this season. Rambo said the teams’ familiarity kept the game tight for a while.
“It was a big chess match there for a while, and neither team was moving the pieces very well,” he said.
Unlike the previous two meetings, the Panthers (17-7) utilized a matchup zone defense to try to slow down the Highlanders’ offense, with some success.
But Yellville-Summit couldn’t contain Cross, a 6-5 guard whose versatility is his biggest strength.
“He’s a guy that can do everything,” Rambo said. “He can make shots against the zone. He’s really good off the dribble. He’s a great offensive rebounder. He just does so many things so well, it’s a nightmare for opposing coaches.”
Cross scored 14 points in the second half against Yellville-Summit, including eight in the fourth quarter as the Highlanders took control after opening the quarter with a 16-15 lead.
Two free throws by Cross made it 18-15. Then, with Yellville-Summit in a more aggressive man-to-man defense, Cross delivered what Rambo called the two biggest plays of the game.
First, Cross beat his defender down the lane for a layup to push the Highlanders’ lead to 20-15. Then, on Eureka Springs’ next possession, he drove the lane again before passing out to freshman guard Matthew Lester, who dropped in a three-pointer from the right baseline for a 23-15 cushion.
“Most normal players can’t do that,” Rambo said of Cross’ playmaking.
Yellville-Summit cut the Highlanders’ lead to 25-20, but a free throw by senior forward Griffin Taylor and a layup by senior forward Carter Drennon made it 28-20. Cross put the finishing touches on the Eureka Springs victory by making four free throws in the final 26.4 seconds.
Now, the Highlanders are one victory away from advancing to the state tournament. But Rambo said Danville presents a challenge.
The Little Johns (16-10) have a senior-laden lineup and will be playing on their home court.
“We played them two years ago in the district tournament,” Rambo said. “They’re a good basketball team. They’re very experienced. They kind of remind me a little bit of Cotter. They’re not very big but they’re athletic.”
Rambo expects Danville to come out strong.
“They’ll probably have even more energy playing at home,” he said. “We may take it on the chin a little bit early in the game. But if we get up and play, I