Regional champs: Highlanders rally late to overtake Panthers
By Scott Loftis
The Eureka Springs Highlanders rallied from a nine-point deficit in the final 3:06 of the game Saturday night to beat Yellville-Summit for the 2A West Regional Tournament championship at Danville.
The Highlanders outscored Yellville-Summit 12-2 down the stretch to beat the Panthers, 32-31.
“It was a great comeback for us, one of those storybook comebacks,” said Eureka Springs coach Brian Rambo.
The Highlanders (33-5) won their 19th consecutive game, beat Yellville-Summit for the fourth time in as many meetings this season and clinched a No. 1 seed in this week’s Class 2A State Tournament at Carlisle High School.
Eureka Springs will play Marked Tree in a first-round game at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.
All of that seemed unlikely, even to Rambo, after Yellville-Summit scored nine consecutive points to take a 29-20 lead with four minutes left in the game.
Rambo said the game was reminiscent of the district tournament final eight days earlier, when the Highlanders beat Yellville-Summit 32-20 on the Panthers’ home floor.
“In a game like that, being down three possessions, it felt like it was insurmountable,” Rambo said.
That feeling must have only been magnified after the Highlanders missed two free throws with 3:43 remaining. But Eureka Springs started its comeback on its next possession, when junior guard Jackson Cross dropped in a three-pointer to pull the Highlanders within six points at 29-23.
After a Yellville-Summit basket, senior forward Carter Drennon broke free for a long outlet pass and an easy layup. On the Highlanders’ next possession, Drennon scored off an offensive rebound to cut Yellville-Summit’s lead to 31-27.
With Eureka Springs pressing, the Panthers turned the ball over. The Highlanders missed a shot on their next possession but came up with the offensive rebound and freshman Matthew Lester made a three-pointer to pull Eureka Springs within one at 31-30 with 47.1 seconds remaining.
Yellville-Summit gave the Highlanders a break when the Panthers were whistled for an offensive foul with 44 seconds left. Eureka Springs senior guard Garrett Cross then drew a foul and sank two free throws with 37.8 seconds remaining to give the Highlanders the lead.
The Panthers missed a shot on their next possession, but Eureka Springs turned the ball over after getting the rebound. The Highlanders eventually regained possession, but missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 5.5 seconds remaining, giving Yellville-Summit a final chance at victory.
The Panthers rebounded the missed free throw, moved the ball into the frontcourt and called timeout with 3.5 seconds left. The Panthers called another timeout with 1.5 seconds left, then threw the ball in for a three-point attempt that missed to preserved the Eureka Springs victory.
“Our press really rattled them,” Rambo said. “Once the game got close, they tightened up.”
Rambo noted the big three-pointers by Jackson Cross and Lester to ignite the comeback.
“We got six points — three from a freshman and three from a junior — from players besides our seniors,” said Rambo, whose team typically starts four seniors along with Lester. “That’s the beauty of our basketball team. At any given point, a guy on our team can get a bucket.”
The Highlanders won’t be tempted to trade in their regional championship trophy, but by winning they might have unwittingly set themselves up for a tough draw in the first round of the state tournament.
Marked Tree reached the Class 2A state championship game last season and finished 31-2. The Indians (22-5) have been ranked first or second in Class 2A most of this season, but lost two games in the 2A North Regional to earn a No. 4 seeding in the state tournament.
“They’re a really good team,” Rambo said. “It’s unfortunate that they slipped up in the regional. But we’ll go play and see what happens.”