HOT SPRINGS — The best season in school history — and that’s saying a lot — ended last week with Central Arkansas Christian’s fourth girls state basketball championship.
Steve Quattlebaum’s Lady Mustangs knocked off Riverview on Friday for the fourth time this season, 68-57, at Hot Springs’ Bank of the Ozarks Arena to finish 36-1.
CAC was ranked third overall in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s final rankings, behind only North Little Rock, the Class 7A state champion; and Conway, the Class 7A state runner-up and the only team to beat the Lady Mustangs this season.
“It feels really good,” Quattlebaum said Sunday after a couple of days to reflect on the accomplishment. “It’s been so long; it’s almost like winning your first one again.”
His teams brought state championship titles to Mustang Mountain in 2005, ‘06 and ‘07. They reached the state title games in 2014 and ‘16 before putting it all together this season.
One of the school’s most special senior classes — including the nation’s best player — will graduate having finished its business.
“It’s hard to compare them, but this one’s pretty sweet,” said Quattlebaum, in his 23rd season at Mustang Mountain. “It’s just been so long, and the two failures before and finally getting it done.
“And this is kind of a special bunch.”
That bunch includes Christyn Williams, named MVP after finishing the championship game with 42 points, 11 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and one assist; Jenna Davis (six points, five rebounds, one assist); Kelson Miller (six points, eight rebounds, five assists, one steal) and Alexa Mashburn (10 points, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal).
Williams, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association High School Player of the Year who will play in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Atlanta later this month, was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year a few hours before the championship game. She then played her final high school game in front of the man she’ll play for the next four years — Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who had flown in from Storrs for the game.
The seniors, who’ve played together since third grade, put together a 117-22 mark (.841 winning percentage) during four years at Mustang Mountain, with two state quarterfinal finishes, one runner-up (to defending champion Riverview in 2016) and one championship (avenging that loss to Riverview).
The end of their sophomore season in the state final was “devastating,” Quattlebaum and Williams agreed. But they used that experience and their early exit last year as incentive for one last attempt.
“It’s just amazing what they’ve accomplished,” Quattlebaum said. “Just a lot of accomplishments. But the way they did it, too — especially the last couple of years, they’ve been a pretty easy bunch to coach. Even when you have really good teams, they have games they’ll play poorly, even against lesser teams, and this team didn’t do that.
“We didn’t have a bad game all year. All the teams we were supposed to beat pretty easily, we pretty well had handled in the first quarter. They probably set a record for most mercy-rule games.”
The Lady Mustangs set school records for most wins and fewest losses. Williams, who averaged 39 points in three state tournament games (34 against Ozark in the quarterfinals, 41 against Pottsville in the semifinals and 42 against Riverview in the championship), moved into a tie for fifth (42 points) and seventh (41) in the Arkansas high school record book, behind only Brenda Rhodes of Wilmar (55 in 1983-84) and Carone Harris of Bradley (45 in 2000), Shekinna Stricklen of Morrilton and Jordan Madden of East Poinsett County (45 in 2008).
In three previous games with Riverview this season, CAC had prevailed by 66-61 in November, 65-48 in the 4A-2 district final and 71-56 in the Class 4A Region 3 final.
After a 6-4 Riverview lead three minutes in, this one was never in doubt. The Lady Mustangs closed the first quarter on a 19-4 run to lead by 23-10. A balanced offense lifted CAC by 36-26 at halftime. Despite being double-teamed, Williams had 14 points.
“We’ve seen that before,” Quattlebaum said of the junk defenses Williams has drawn much of her career. “We were kind of anticipating it. (Riverview coach Ryan Smith has) played almost every defense I can think of against her. We said the only thing he’s got left to do is put two on Christyn.
“We’ve seen it all. At times it has worked, but this year, with this bunch of kids, as hard as they’ve worked to get better, it’s not going to work.”
Smith said he’d put in a couple of new wrinkles for the fourth meeting.
“We pretty much threw the kitchen sink at her,” he said. “I don’t know what else we could’ve done besides put all five on her.”
Mashburn added eight points in the first half; Miller and Davis had six each and freshman Bethany Dillard, the other starter, two.
The Lady Raiders cut the difference to 36-28 with 7:45 left, but Williams took over, bombing 3s and penetrating the lane as she scored 19 of CAC’s 23 points in the third quarter as the Lady Mustangs built a 59-39 lead heading into the fourth. Riverview cut nine points off the difference before the final buzzer.
“That’s kind of how all of our games with them have been — we’ve gotten leads and then they’ve come back,” Quattlebaum said. “You can’t relax on that bunch. They’re dangerous. They hit 3s. We were up 16; they come down and hit a couple of 3s and it’s down to 10 just that fast.”
Riverview hit seven treys and 10 of 11 free throws.
With Williams drawing double teams well away from the basket, especially in the first half, Mashburn and Miller took advantage.
“That was the game of her life,” Quattlebaum said of Mashburn, not known as a scorer but who hit five of eight field goals, mostly baseline jumpers. “That’s the Mashburn spot on the floor.
Williams said she “got to check off” her final high school goal.
“I’m super proud of my team,” she said. “We did whatever it took to win. It was a total team effort.
“It’s been an amazing ride.”
“She’s by far the best player I’ve coached against,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ll ever coach a girl that good. That’s why she’s going to Connecticut.”
CAC has reached the state tournament for the last 18 years. The Lady Mustangs have gone to the semifinals nine of those years. They lost to Malvern, the defending state champion, for the fifth time that season in the 2014 state final and to defending champion Riverview for the fifth time in ‘16.
“We caught them both in their second year (of their championship run),” Quattlebaum said.
And while it won’t be in Class 4A — CAC drops to Class 3A next season — don’t bet against the Lady Mustangs to continue their streak in 2018-19.