Highlanders' rally clinches state tournament bid
By Scott Loftis
DANVILLE – It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t particularly pretty, but the Eureka Springs Highlanders are going to the state tournament.
The Highlanders rallied from a five-point deficit in the fourth quarter Wednesday night to beat Danville 31-28 in the opening round of the 2A West Regional Tournament.
Eureka Springs (31-5) won its 17th consecutive game and assured itself a spot in the Class 2A State Tournament that begins Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Carlisle High School.
“I thought we were extremely tight,” Eureka Springs coach Brian Rambo said. “It was kind of weird because we’ve played three postseason games and two of them haven’t really been neutral-site games. It’s just hard. You drive almost four hours to get there, then you’re not allowed to shoot before the game or get familiar with the court, and you’re playing a team on its home court that’s a good basketball team.
“The odds were against us. We knew what was on the line. Our guys just played scared, especially as the game went on. We just tightened up. We haven’t really been in that position in a long time, where we needed a stop in the fourth quarter or needed to score. Luckily the defense did a great job in the fourth quarter holding them to three points.”
Danville had a shot to force overtime on its final possession but freshman Tarrel Macon’s three-point attempt popped out just before the final buzzer.
“From my angle, like everyone else I thought it was in,” Rambo said. “We did a great job of contesting it, and we got the freshman to take the shot which is what we wanted. But when he let it go, it was tracking right online.Thank goodness, it popped out.”
Senior guard Garrett Cross put the Highlanders ahead for good when he drove the lane for a layup and a 29-28 lead with 52 seconds left.
Danville missed a pair of three throws with 35.5 seconds left and was forced to foul. Cross missed the front end of a one-and-one with 30.4 seconds remaining and the ball went out of bounds to Danville.
Macon missed a jumper on the Little Johns’ next possession, and after a scramble for the rebound, the ball went out of bounds to Eureka Springs.
Danville fouled Cross again, and he made both ends of the one-and-one for a three-point lead with 9.2 seconds left, setting the stage for Danville’s final possession.
Cross led the Highlanders with 14 points, but the fourth-quarter comeback was a complete team effort. Danville led 25-20 after three quarters, but it took Eureka Springs just one minute and 12 seconds to erase that deficit.
First, senior forward Carter Drennon dropped in a three-pointer from the top of the key with 7:24 left to pull the Highlanders within two at 25-23.
“Wasn’t that a dagger?” Rambo said. “The last couple of weeks, teams have been leaving someone unguarded to try and help on Garrett. They were helping off Carter and he stepped out there and put it up with confidence.”
On the Highlanders’ next possession, freshman Matthew Lester hit a driving layup with his left hand for a 25-25 tie with 6:48 left.
Danville regained the lead at 26-25 when Eli Lane made the first of two free throws following a technical foul with 5:10 left. Drennon answered with a basket from short range after a nice pass from junior guard Jackson Cross, giving the Highlanders their first lead of the second half at 27-26.
Danville scored its final basket on a spin move inside by senior guard Evan Lane that made it 28-27.
Eureka Springs will play in the regional semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday night’s first-round game between Hackett and Flippin.