HOT SPRINGS — The road to the 7A state championship for the Conway girls was full of green lights.
In the kingdom that is Lady Cat basketball, there are no red lights.
That was on display Thursday night during the rubber game of the state high school basketball tournament when the Lady Cats put on one of the greatest shooting displays ever seen in a state title game.
During a 30-7 second-quarter blitz against a good and senior-laden Fort Smith Northside team, the defending state champions, the Lady Cats hit their last eight shots — six of them 3-pointers by three different players.
Conway was so hot that someone mused if the fire marshal was around.
If it were a carnival, the Lady Cats would have returned to Conway with a load of stuffed animals.
“Unbelievable,” said Northside coach Rickey Smith, who has won 500 games.
“We feed off our shooting,” said Conway coach Ashley Nance. “Pretty much, everybody has a green light. If you are open and it’s a good shot and a good moment, take it.”
She grimaces and chastises her players more from the shots they pass up than the ones they take.
That philosophy comes naturally. As Ashley Hutchcraft, she was part of three Class A championship teams at Guy-Perkins and tournament MVP each time. She had an automatic green light from her father, John Hutchcraft and fired away with confidence, hitting 15 3-pointers in one game (eight in the first quarter).
She understands the shooter’s mentality. She has lived it. She’d rather a player work herself into a rhythm, than worry about whether she would be taken out of a game if they miss a shot.
“I guess you’re a product of your upbringing, and that’s how we played at Guy-Perkins,” Nance said. “It’s controversial with some coaches, but we had the green light all the time. Dad always said if you can’t shoot the ball out there on the court, you shouldn’t be out there.”
She has developed a legacy of streak shooters who can go off bigtime — former players Taylor Gault (the Sun Belt Player of the Year) and Enjonae Chambers, Kianna Speight (who missed this season with injury) and current players Jordan Danberry (tourney MVP and Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year), Alexis Tolefree, Christin Rogers, Hailey Estes and Asia Willard, almost everybody she puts on the court.
It’s a way Nance takes off the pressure. It’s a reason that Conway won a title with a young team that was considered a year away against a veteran group that had been to four straight state championship games and were the defending champions. Northside has been a dynasty in Arkansas high school basketball for a decade.
“My goal has been to keep them (the players) loose,” Nance said. “That’s why I let them play the music they like in the locker room and do all their chants.”
Sophomore Alexis Tolefree hit four straight 3-quarters in the second half, and Danberry talked about it matter-of-factly.
“I knew she was hot,” said Danberry, who also hit a 3-pointer in that period. “I told her to keep doing it.”
“One of the things we had to establish this year, and struggled with, is finding our identity.”
Part of that identity was load up the weapons and fire away.
And opponents were left shell-shocked.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)