Lady Bobcats refuse to lose: 3 straight comeback victories send Berryville to state final
By Scott Loftis
MAGNOLIA — The Berryville Lady Bobcats found themselves in a familiar position Saturday night — the semifinals of the Class 4A State Tournament.
Now, they’re on the verge of a new experience: playing for a state championship.
Playing in the state semis for the fourth consecutive season, the Lady Bobcats dominated the second half and beat conference rival Harrison 54-38 to advance to the state tournament finals for the first time in school history.
Berryville (31-4) will play Batesville (29-3) at 5:45 p.m. Thursday at the Hot Springs Convention Center.
The Lady Bobcats trailed at halftime in each of their three games in Magnolia, but rallied each time. Berryville erased a 10-point third quarter deficit in a 56-46 first-round victory over Warren, came from 11 points down in the third quarter to beat Pulaski Academy 61-50 in the quarterfinals and overcame a four-point halftime deficit in the semifinal victory over Harrison.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Berryville coach Daniel Cornelison said. “I couldn’t be more proud of how they gutted it out. They just wouldn’t get beat. That’s the mindset they had. The whole tournament, we just wouldn’t be denied.”
The semifinal victory over Harrison was Berryville’s second in four games against the Lady Goblins. Harrison had won the last two meetings, most recently a 39-32 victory in the 2A North Regional Tournament championship game on Feb. 23 in Morrilton.
In the regional final, Berryville did not make a single three-point shot. Cornelison said he knew that had to change in the state tournament, and he was counting on senior guard Baylea Smith to make sure of it.
“I told Baylea, ‘you need to have a big game for us. We’re going to get you the basketball and we need you to let it fly.’ ”
Smith obliged, dropping in three three-pointers in the first half and four altogether to help open up the inside for senior forwards Hannah Morrell and Kelcee Hopper.
Altogether, the Lady Bobcats made 13 three-pointers in three games.
“You know playing these teams, every single one of them is pointing to stop our post players,” Cornelison said. “I knew our guards would have to make big shots for us. They came through when we needed it.”
With the long shots opening up the inside a bit, Morrell went to work on the inside against Harrison and simply wore out the Lady Goblins.
After being hampered by foul trouble in the first two rounds, Morrell scored 29 points against Harrison. She had 18 in the second half as the Lady Bobcats outscored the Lady Goblins 32-12.
Unlike the Warren and Pulaski Academy games, when Berryville didn’t turn the tide until late in the third quarter, the Lady Bobcats took control early in the second half against Harrison with a 7-0 run to open the third quarter.
Morrell got things started when she converted a three-point play after an assist from junior guard Lexy Anderson. Senior guard McKayla Hussey came up with a steal on Harrison’s next possession. She was fouled driving to the basket and made the second of two free throws to tie the score at 26-26 with 6:05 left in the third quarter. The Lady Bobcats took the lead for good when Hopper was fouled after an offensive rebound and made the second of two free throws with 5:19 remaining in the quarter.
Hopper added a putback, Morrell scored off a pass from Smith and Anderson sank a three-pointer from the right wing after an inside-out pass from Hopper to give Berryville a 36-29 lead with 1:11 left in the quarter.
Smith made her fourth three-pointer of the game after a pass from Morrell with 6:33 left in the fourth quarter for a 39-31 lead, and two free throws by Morrell at the 4:52 mark made it 43-33.
Harrison never got closer than seven points down the stretch as the Lady Bobcats pulled away. Smith finished with 13 points to join Morrell in double figures.
In the quarterfinals against Pulaski Academy, Berryville trailed 39-28 with 4:35 left in the third quarter but outscored the Lady Bruins 13-1 over the next 5:21 to take the lead. Anderson bounced the ball off a Pulaski Academy player back to herself for a layup on an inbounds play and Smith scored seven consecutive points for Berryville, including two free throws for a 41-40 lead with 7:14 left in the game. Pulaski Academy scored the next five points, but Lady Bobcats sophomore guard Lilli Compton responded with a three-pointer at the 5:41 mark and put Berryville back ahead to stay when she sank two free throws with 3:26 remaining. Hopper and Morrell each converted three-point plays in the final two minutes and the Lady Bobcats scored their last eight points from the free-throw line.
Hopper finished with 16 points while Anderson added 14 and Morrell scored 11.
Hopper, Morrell and Smith have been on the varsity roster since their freshman season. Over the course of their high school careers, the Lady Bobcats have won 107 games — including 24 in postseason play. That kind of experience is crucial in a state tournament environment, Cornelison said.
“You can’t coach the kind of experience we have,” he said. “We know the emotions. We know the ups and downs. We know what to expect. We kept ourselves composed because of our experience.”
Berryville will need all of its talent and experience in the championship game against Batesville. The Lady Pioneers have averaged 71 points in two state tournament games. Sophomore guard Izzy Higginbottom has scored 48 points in the tournament.
“I know a lot about Batesville, unfortunately,” Cornelison said. “They are extremely athletic. They are good at all the right spots.”
Cornelison said Higginbottom may be the best player the Lady Bobcats have seen all season.
“She can do a lot of things with the basketball in her hands,” he said.
More than anything, Cornelison said he expects the championship game to be a contrast in styles.
“They are really athletic and really fast,” he said. “They want to try to score 80 points and we want to hold people to 40.”
Thursday’s state championship game will be broadcast locally on KTHS radio and televised live on AETN