Central Arkansas Christian’s magical run ended Friday in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A State Boys Basketball Tournament when the home Jackrabbits clipped the Mustangs, 56-41, at Lonoke.
Matt Hall’s first CAC squad had won six consecutive heading into the state tournament, including district and regional championships. The Mustangs ended their season 16-15 after starting 2-10.
"I had the conversation with the kids (at the beginning of the season) that it was possible that we could be 0-10 with the schedule and our lack of experience," Hall said. "I didn’t honestly think we would be, but we were close.
"For a group of kids that started off with so many losses, to not throw in the towel when we kept getting beat — we kept working. We wanted to play our best basketball late in the year, and we did that."
After earning a first-round bye with their top seed from the South Regional, the Mustangs got off to a good start against Lonoke, building a 14-8 lead in the first quarter. But they were held to just two points in the second as Lonoke scored 18. The Jackrabbits led at the break, 26-16, and the margin didn’t change in the third quarter. Lonoke won the final period, 21-16, to take the 15-point win.
Joseph Strange was the only Mustang in double figures with 15 points. Stephen Flanigan and Elijah Loring added nine each.
Lonoke got 29 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocked shots from senior Blake Mack, who is also a standout wide receiver and has signed to play football at Arkansas State University. The Jackrabbits (25-5) won the 11th of their last 12 games and will now play in the Class 4A state championship game at Hot Springs.
CAC went 11 of 24 from the foul line, including six misses in the final period.
"We definitely didn’t play our best game," Hall said. "But they’re good. They’re all seniors, and they played well. They took us out of some stuff that we like to do.
"At that point, I’m not sure there is a good draw or a bad draw. There are eight teams left (in the quarterfinals), and everybody’s good. I honestly think anybody can beat anybody out of those eight."
In fact, he pointed out Sunday, the Mustangs were a combined 4-0 against two of the state semifinalists — Malvern (3-0) and Monticello (1-0).
"Lonoke was the better team Friday night when we played," he said. "It was a good year; it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to."
Six seniors will graduate from this squad: Strange, Loring, Julian Kidd, Eric Bentley, Henle Waller and Pete Evans.
"They’re the group that’s going to be able to say they started whatever this is we’ve got going," said Hall, who inherited a team that had little returning experience when Steve Quattlebaum stepped away from the boys program after last season to focus solely on the Lady Mustangs. "They started the success and laid the foundation. They are all exceptional leaders. Some of them played a lot; some played a little, and some not much, but they all did a great job leading by example in practicing and doing the things you expect a good team to do. That will make it easier in the future because next year’s seniors will understand what they’re supposed to do."
This team built on the accomplishments of Quattlebaum’s final Mustang squad.
"We’re back-to-back district and regional champions, and not many teams can say that," Hall said. "I couldn’t be happier with the way the season went, and I’m excited about next year. I think we’ve got a chance to be better. We’ll have more experience, and the boys will know what to expect from me early on and we won’t be trying to figure out each other."