HOT SPRINGS — Malvern prevailed over Central Arkansas Christian’s Lady Mustangs for the fifth time this season, this time last week for the Class 4A state championship.
The Lady Leopards successfully defended their 2013 title with the 50-44 decision at Hot Springs’ Summit Arena.
And although CAC coach Steve Quattlebaum was disappointed to come so close to bringing a fourth state championship to Mustang Mountain, it didn’t take him long to recover.
"I couldn’t imagine being any prouder of them had they won the game," he said Sunday. "We couldn’t have played any better. They were committed; they played with heart and intensity. I don’t think we could do much more."
It was the eighth consecutive Malvern win in the series since a 2011 holiday tournament in Hot Springs, when the Lady Leopard seniors were sophomores.
"We beat them by 20 in the final, and I think they remembered that every time they played us since then," Quattlebaum said. "They played really hard. We’ve got a lot of respect for each other. They didn’t have any letdowns against us in those eight games."
The Lady Mustangs closed 26-7, including the five losses to their nemesis (twice in the regular season as well as the finals of the district, regional and state tournaments). Malvern finished 30-2.
"We were right there," Quattlebaum said. "It was one of our best games. I thought we just competed so hard, played with a lot of heart. Like almost every game we’ve played them, in the fourth quarter we made some turnovers and let them get some offensive rebounds and put-backs. But you have to give them a lot of credit. They made the plays."
CAC built a 5-0 lead as Falan Miller hit from underneath and Chloe Elkins drained a 3 off Brittney Higgins’ rebounding. Malvern pulled within 7-6 on a pair of free throws by Akasha Westbrook, but the Lady Mustangs answered with Jones underneath and Elkins again for 3. After the first quarter, CAC led, 14-11.
The Lady Mustangs added to their lead with a 9-6 second quarter. Jones scored seven of the nine, including a three-point play with 4:03 left before halftime, as CAC built its largest lead, 23-15. The margin at the break was 23-17.
"Our kids were ready to play; they were excited and up for the game," Quattlebaum said. "We got off to a great start and did a great job defensively."
Malvern hit just five of 23 field goals in the first half (21.7 percent).
"But that’s a team with a lot of players who can score, and you’re not going to hold them a whole game like that," Quattlebaum said. "Eventually fatigue got us. We were playing a little harder than we normally play. They are so physical. None of them really got in foul trouble and had to sit, so you’re out there the whole game against them."
With three Division 1 signees, Malvern dominated most of the third quarter, outscoring CAC, 14-3, in building a 31-26 lead with 2:46 left. Tiffany Murdock (Louisiana Tech), Westbrook (Arkansas State) and Alivia Huell (UALR) did most of the damage offensively, and the Lady Leopard defense forced turnovers on three consecutive possessions before CAC could get off a shot. Elkins’ 3 from the right wing pulled the Lady Mustangs within 31-29 entering the fourth quarter.
The Lady Mustangs rallied to keep things close, 33-33 on Miller’s bucket from the lane, 35-35 on Sarah Butler’s shot from the top of the key and 38-38 on Butler’s trey from the right wing. They took two more leads, on Miller’s inside basket with 3:17 left, 40-38, and on Higgins’ free throw at 2:43, 41-40, but from that point, Malvern scored seven straight en route to a 10-3 finish. The Lady Mustangs didn’t score again until Higgins’ layup with 53.5 seconds remaining.
"We got it stuck on 23 and probably should’ve had a bigger lead at halftime than we had," Quattlebaum said. "We lost an opportunity, and that hurt us. We knew they were going to make a run on us. We fought back and showed a lot of poise."
Jones finished with 15 points (after 11 in the first half) and 12 rebounds. Elkins had 11 points and four rebounds as she hit all three from three-point range. Miller added 10 points and five rebounds.
The Lady Mustangs got to Hot Springs by knocking off Valley View in Monday’s semifinals at Lonoke, 56-41. The win avenged a loss in the quarterfinals last year. This time, CAC started quickly, winning the first quarter, 15-6, and building a 25-14 lead at halftime. The Lady Mustangs lost only the third period (13-11) in settling for the 15-point win.
Jones recorded 27 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, her second straight double-double in the state tournament after 30 points and 10 rebounds in the quarterfinal against Brookland. Miller added 18 points. Butler recorded six points, six rebounds and five assists.
Quattlebaum said he challenged his team after "a poor effort" against Bauxite in the regular-season finale.
"I challenged them to be a little more coachable and a little more unselfish," he said. "We were better than what we were playing, and I told them we have a chance to go a long ways, and it would be disappointing to have our season end before we get to where we should be.
"They took it in the right way, rededicated themselves to being that kind of team. They played harder and more together, and our defense was unbelievable in the state tournament. In our first two games, we held Brookland and Valley View to a combined 30 points in the first half.
"This loss is not gong to diminish the season we had. We felt like we had a chance to get there at the beginning of the season. It was a good year."