Assuming all went as planned Tuesday against Ashdown, Central Arkansas Christian’s Lady Mustangs face their biggest game of the season Friday at Malvern.
The Lady Leopards, who started the week 12-2 overall and, like CAC, 5-0 in 7-4A conference play, are the defending Class 4A state champions and currently ranked atop Class 4A, according to one statewide newspaper. CAC (13-2) is ranked fifth.
"They are very athletic, very good defensively," CAC coach Steve Quattlebaum said of the Lady Leopards. "They’ve been beating our other conference opponents pretty thoroughly while we’ve struggled. It’s going to be a challenge for us."
Malvern lost just one starter from its state championship team. The Lady Leopards have lost to Hot Springs (as did CAC) in the Spa City Shootout over the Christmas holiday and a Missouri team at a tournament in Fort Smith.
Quattlebaum said those losses had come during a stretch when Malvern wasn’t playing well, but while the Lady Leopards have improved since then, his team seems to have gone the other way.
"Since the Hot Springs game, we haven’t played very well," Quattlebaum said. "Not well at all. We’ve struggled scoring. I don’t think we’ve been over 40 points since then. We’ve been pretty good defensively. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m hoping maybe it’s because we’ve been anticipating playing Malvern."
The showdown will tip at 6 p.m.
"It’s a tough place to play, probably the toughest in the conference," Quattlebaum said. "It’s a small gym; they put the band behind you on the bench."
Malvern won all three meetings last year — two in the regular season and one in the district tournament. Two were handy wins; in the other, Malvern hit a shot at the buzzer to force overtime, and the Lady Leopards prevailed there.
CAC won two on the road last week, but neither victory was as dominating as it should have been, Quattlebaum said. CAC beat Bauxite, 33-27, and Arkadelphia, 40-28.
Sydnie Jones led the Lady Mustangs against Bauxite with 14 points. Falan Miller added 11. At Arkadelphia, the game was tied in the fourth quarter before CAC closed with a run. Jones led scoring again with 14.
"We’re just not playing well," Quattlebaum said. "They’re playing hard; they’re playing good defense; they’re just not shooting the ball very well. We were 3-of-14 or something like that on 3s against Arkadelphia and about the same at Bauxite, and we’re a team that hit 13 (3s) in one game earlier.
"But it’s a long year. It’s hard to play good games every game, and it’s pretty obvious that us and Malvern are quite a bit better than everybody else in the conference. But you still have to play the games.
"From what I’ve seen, I think we’re better, but I thought we were last year, too. But we never outplayed them except that one (OT) game."
He said progress seemed to have been made against a couple of costly injuries. Miller, the senior, has been slowed by an ankle, and Quattlebaum said she tweaked it late in a game last week.
"We’ll see how she is (Monday)," he said Sunday. "I think it’s fine, but it’s slowed her some. She’s not shooting quite as well as she was."
Sarah Butler, who had been plagued by a bad thumb, played without her brace last week, and Quattlebaum said that seemed to go well.
The Malvern game will wind up the first half of the conference round-robin schedule for the Lady Mustangs. CAC will begin the second half Tuesday, Jan. 28, when it plays host to Arkansas Baptist, a team the Lady Mustangs rolled over the first time, 48-18.
"We have been on the road most of these games," Quattlebaum said. "We did get most of those out of the way."