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McCollum's Column: Birthday present for Dad; title shot for team

Posted: March 11, 2014 - 7:37pm

Ashley Nance put the icing on her father’s birthday cake.

Guy-Perkins coach John Hutchcraft watched about three rows behind the Conway High bench as his daughter led the Lady Cats into the state 7A championship game on his birthday Monday.

A weather delay allowed Nance to give her father another title (a vicarious one) on his birthday.

And another generation of Hutchcraft is making its mark on Arkansas state basketball tournament history.

When she takes her Lady Cats to Hot Springs on Thursday to play Fort Smith Northside for the 7A girls state championship, Nance should be well aware of the drill and the territory.

She will make her sixth appearance as either a player, an assistant coach or a coach in three different classifications in the championship game.

She was MVP three straight years playing for her dad win three straight girls championships for Guy-Perkins in Class A. She set a state championship record with 15 3-pointers in a game, eight in the first quarter.

As a player, she followed the footsteps of her sister, Charlotte, and step-brother Jason McGinty on championship teams at Guy-Perkins.

She was beside her dad on the bench again as an assistant coach at Guy-Perkins and was on the losing side for the only time in a title game.

In 2010, in her second year as a head coach, Nance led Conway Christian to the Class 2A girls title.

It’s almost a state tradition to have a Hutchcraft on the floor for a state championship game.

It’s an old joke around Guy-Perkins that Ashley had a basketball instead of a teething ring in the crib.

She had cut her teeth on tournament basketball. She knew well what her team faced before it dominated West Memphis on Monday as the Lady Cats won their 10th game in a row to surge into the title match against Fort Smith Northside, coincidentally the team that helped turn the season around.

“This game was the hard part although the players didn’t know that,” said Nance after the semifinal victory. “You prepare to win a state championship game, but that’s the fun part. Getting there is hard.”

And getting there reflects a fine coaching job Nance has done with this team, which was on the bubble as to even getting in the state tournament field a few weeks ago. The Lady Cats fought their way to a No. 4 seed after they didn’t lose during the second half of the 7A Central Conference season, highlighted by a dominating victory over Northside, which was almost shut out during a “Murphy’s Law” first half for the Lady Bears.

The Conway girls began with adversity, losing Kianna Speight, one of their top scorers, to a knee injury during the summer.

There were various issues in the early part of the season. The Lady Cats, although fairly successful, were discordant parts.

“We had controversy on this team,” said Nance. “And the kids had to make a decision. Before the second half of the season, I told them that the only way we’re going to win and fight our way out of this was to play team basketball. We had to play for each other and not worry abou what other people were saying about what we were doing on the floor.”

The spark was lit. Guards Jordan Danberry and Alexis Tolefree became possibly the best one-two punch in Arkansas girls high school basketball. They were at the top of the stat sheet most games but the real metamorphasis went beyond that.

Post Christin Rogers, probably the steadiest player during the Lady Cats’ swoon, stayed steady and furnished a strong presence in the middle, offensively and defensively. Asia Willard became a more consistent playmaker offensively and defensively. Hailey Estes emerged as a clutch player. Allie Pack often came off the bench to furnish good minutes and hit some big shots.

Things clicked and the Lady Cats went from an underachieving reasonably good team to a darn good team that is playing its basketball at the right time.

Conway and Fort Smith Northside are clearly the best two girls teams in 7A at present. They split during the regular season.

Nance and her team have already enjoyed the appetizers, the main course and the cake. This is for the icing with a cherry on top.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)

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