Central Arkansas Christian’s Lady Mustangs will get one more shot at Malvern — and it’s the biggest one of all.
Steve Quattlebaum’s team will face the Lady Leopards, the defending Class 4A state champions, at 3:30 p.m. in the first game today at Hot Springs’ Summit Arena.
CAC, which has lost seven consecutive to Malvern dating to last season, returns to the state championship game for the first time since winning consecutive titles in 2005, ’06 and ’07.
"They’re not that much better than us," said Quattlebaum, whose team lost to Malvern three times last season and four times this year. "We’ve just got to hope that at some point the pressure builds on them.
"It’s hard to beat a good team five times in one season. We’re hoping the odds will catch up with us a little bit. The way we look at it, we’ve got nothing to lose."
CAC enters the championship game 25-6 overall. Malvern is 29-2.
The Lady Leopards have thus far beaten the Lady Mustangs in the regular season, 52-45 and 46-38; in the 7-4A district championship, 42-30; and the Class 4A South regional championship, 51-42.
"All of them have been pretty similar — we play well and stay with them for a while," Quattlebaum said. "We’ve been ahead in a lot of them, but in the fourth quarter we’ve usually lost to them. They wear you down physically. They kill people on the boards. The physical beating you take trying to rebound with them wears you down."
So what could be the difference this time?
"We’re rebounding the ball a little better than we were, so that’ll help," Quattlebaum said. "Our defense has really improved the last couple of weeks. I don’t know what we do different; we’ve just got to do a better job of the things we do well."
One key will be keeping the CAC starters on the floor. Against Malvern, typically, Sydnie Jones or Falan Miller or more has had to sit with foul trouble.
"We haven’t pressed hardly at all (in the state tournament), and that’s helped our foul situation some," Quattlebaum said. "Jones played the whole game (against Brookland in the quarterfinals) without any foul trouble. It’s big for us to have her on the floor all the time, as well as Miller."
After a first-round bye, the Lady Mustangs beat Brookland, second seed from the East, in the quarterfinals of the state tournament at Lonoke on Saturday, 60-44. They handled Valley View, No. 1 from the East, in Monday’s semifinal, 56-41.
Against Brookland, the Lady Mustangs took a 9-4 lead after one quarter and led by 20-18 at the half. They extended their lead to 36-29 in the third quarter and outscored Brookland by nine points in the final period to claim the 60-44 win.
Jones put together an all-star performance with 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks. Miller added 12 points and Chloe Elkins nine.
Against Valley View, CAC was again in control throughout, building a 15-6 lead after the first quarter and a 25-14 advantage at halftime.
"That was one of our better defensive halves of the year," Quattlebaum said Monday night. "In the third quarter, they made a run and beat us 13-11, so we were up 36-27 going into the fourth. We outscored them 20-14 in the fourth."
Jones delivered 27 points. Miller added 18 and Sarah Butler six.
"We made our free throws, for the most part," Quattlebaum said. "Their best player ended up fouling out with 21 points, but 12 were on free throws. Falan Miller did a great job on her. She scored 30 the other night with 19 free throws. She was the only one in double figures."
He said he knew heading into the state tournament that defense would be the key for his team.
"We really committed to it," he said. "We physically dominated both those games. We felt like we had to slow it down and make sure we got good looks inside, and they did a great job of that. They were very unselfish."
He said his team had gelled since the district tournament.
"We had a little meeting after our last regular-season game against Bauxite and got some things straightened out," he said. "We’ve been a different team ever since."