End of an era: Senior-laden Lady Bobcats fall to Batesville in 4A state final
By Scott Loftis
HOT SPRINGS — If Thursday’s Class 4A girls state championship game had been written as a movie script, the Berryville Lady Bobcats almost certainly would have won the title.
With the Lady Bobcats playing in their first state championship game after three consecutive semifinal losses, in the final game for a remarkable group of seniors, all the plotlines were there.
But Hot Springs isn’t Hollywood, and there was no happy ending for the Lady Bobcats.
The Batesville Lady Pioneers used their relentless pressure to pull away from Berryville in the fourth quarter and beat the Lady Bobcats 72-66 at Bank OZK Arena inside the Hot Springs Convention Center.
Batesville (30-3) erased a four-point deficit in the final 57 seconds of the third quarter, then scored 26 fourth-quarter points to secure the victory.
Coming into the game, Berryville (31-5) wanted to control the tempo, get open shots for its guards to open up the inside and limit its turnovers against Batesville’s smothering press.
The Lady Bobcats shot 61.9 percent (26 of 42) from the floor, including 7 of 10 from three-point range, compared to 42.3 percent (22 of 52) for the Lady Pioneers, who made just 5 of 20 three-point attempts. Berryville also outrebounded Batesville 28-24. But the Lady Bobcats committed 20 turnovers, while the Lady Pioneers had just six. Batesville was credited with 15 steals, Berryville with just one.
Turnovers take toll
Batesville scored 24 points off Berryville turnovers.
“We talked about that all week long, how important it was to not turn the ball over against them,” Berryville coach Daniel Cornelison said. “Every film we watched, they create turnovers. We knew the importance of not turning it over, because their offense kind of feeds off of it. And I thought for the most part, we did a pretty good job against it. We just had two or three turnovers at the end of the third and in the fourth.”
Still, the Lady Bobcats had a chance to win thanks to their dominance on the inside and the shooting of senior guard Baylea Smith.
Smith made seven of 12 shots from the floor, including five of seven from three-point range, and led the Lady Bobcats with 20 points. Senior forward Hannah Morrell added 18 points and eight rebounds for Berryville and senior forward Kelcee Hopper added 12 points and seven rebounds.
Leaving a legacy
Smith, Morrell and Hopper played their final games in a Berryville uniform, along with fellow seniors McKayla Hussey and Alexis Steele. Smith and Morrell were four-year starters, while Hopper was a varsity player as a freshman and started since her sophomore year.
Over that four-year span, Berryville won 107 games and lost 34. The Lady Bobcats went 63-8 over the past two seasons.
“I told them in the locker room: ‘You have no idea what you’ve done for our community and our school,’ ” Cornelison said. “It won’t set in for years, probably, exactly how important they have been to us. A hundred and seven wins in their career. I can’t tell you how many tournament titles, regional championships, three straight Final Fours prior to this year, the championship game. They’ve set the standard pretty high.”
On Thursday, the Lady Bobcats held their own with high-scoring Batesville for three quarters. After trailing 29-28 at halftime, Berryville took the lead early in the third quarter when Hopper scored off a pass from Morrell.
Batesville responded with eight consecutive points, including two three-pointers by sophomore Izzy Higginbottom, to take a 37-30 lead with 5:57 left in the quarter.
From there, Berryville seized the momentum with a 16-5 run. Junior Lexy Anderson got things started with a three-pointer from the right baseline with 5:38 remaining, then Smith sank a driving bank shot despite being fouled. She added the free throw to complete the three-point play and pull the Lady Bobcats within one at 37-36.
After two Batesville free throws, Anderson scored off a nice pass from Morrell against the press. Anderson, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half, then grabbed a defensive rebound and drove the length of the floor for a basket from inside the lane that put Berryville up 40-39 with 3:11 remaining in the quarter.
Batesville answered with a three-pointer to regain the lead, but Hopper scored off an assist from Morrell for a 42-42 tie at the 2:02 mark. After Batesville missed a three-pointer, Anderson dropped in a bank shot to put the Lady Bobcats ahead 44-42, then Morrell scored inside for a 46-42 lead with 57 seconds left.
Then, disaster struck for the Lady Bobcats.
With 39 seconds left in the quarter, Batesville missed a three-pointer and Berryville grabbed the defensive rebound. But seven seconds later, the Lady Bobcats turned it over. Higginbottom drew a foul and made two free throws with 24 seconds left. Again, Berryville committed a turnover, this one with 19 seconds left. Batesville’s Reese Gardner missed a three-pointer with three seconds remaining, but Higginbottom grabbed the offensive rebound and scored at the buzzer for a 46-46 tie.
The four points in the final 24 seconds of the third quarter started a 16-2 Batesville run that was finally halted when Anderson dropped in a three-pointer from the right corner with 4:28 left in the game.
But by then, the damage was done. Batesville led 56-51, and when Higginbottom converted a steal into a layup with 3:37 left, the Lady Pioneers had a seven-point cushion at 58-51.
“I thought both teams competed really hard tonight,” Cornelison said. “We just had a little lull right there at the end of the third quarter I felt that really changed the tempo of the game. I think if we convert on those two or three possessions … it could have been a different outcome. But you’ve really got to tip your hat to Batesville. They came at us all night long. They just kept the pressure on us and we just made some crucial turnovers late in the third and early in the fourth that kind of changed the dynamic and the momentum of the game.”
Higginbottom, who scored 48 points in Batesville’s first two tournament games, had just three in the first half against Berryville. But she scored 23 in the second half, including 16 in the fourth quarter, to finish with 26.
Berryville cut the Batesville lead to five on a putback by Hopper with 2:09 remaining, but Higginbottom made one of two free throws with 1:50 remaining, then turned a steal into a three-point play that put the Lady Pioneers up 64-55 with 1:40 left.
Still, Berryville refused to quit. The final three-pointer of Smith’s high school career pulled the Lady Bobcats back within six at 68-62 with 36 seconds left, but Batesville made its final four free throws to secure the win.
Morrell scored Berryville’s final four points, the last on a floater in the lane with 7.9 seconds left for the last basket of the game.
After the game, Smith, Morrell and Hopper reflected on their time together as Lady Bobcats.
“The last three years we’ve ended our season where we didn’t want to,” Smith said. “So tonight didn’t turn out as well as we wanted, but it was still incredible to finally get to this game.”
“I feel like the reason that we have been so successful is because we play for each other,” Morrell said. “We want good for each other, and we’re all such good friends so we worked together as a team.”
“We fell short the past three years and this year, we ended in the last game we wanted to,” Hopper said. “What Coach said in the locker room (was): ‘We’re taking our jerseys off for the last time in the game we wanted, but we just came up a little short.”