HOT SPRINGS — Conway’s Lady Cats created a massive tidal wave in the second quarter Thursday night and rode the crest all the way to the 7A state championship.
Conway (28-5), which finished the season with an 11-game winning streak, outscored Fort Smith Northside, the defending state champion 30-7 in the second quarter in one of the best periods of basketball ever played in a state title game. The Lady Cats defeated the Lady Bears for the second time with the 74-67 victory at Summit Arena.
During that run, three different Conway players hit 3-point shots. Sophomore guard Alexis Tolefree hit four in a row from various angles. At one point, the Lady Cats hit seven of eight shots, six of them 3-pointers, and the one they missed, they got the rebound and turned it into another basket.
“I’ve never seen a team shoot like they did the second quarter,” said Northside coach Rickey Smith, whose Lady Bears were making their fourth-straight appearance in the state title game. “Every time, we gambled on double-team a shooter, another player would get open and make a 3.
“They were draining 3s everywhere and it was not just one of them. If you apply enough ball pressure and the guards handle it, somebody is gonna be open. But they had post players step out and hit 3s. Guards. Kids coming off the bench.”
Conway had five players hit 3-point shots (Jordan Danberry, Tolefree, Asia Willard, Christin Rogers and Hailey Estes).
“I think we have shooters on this team and they are confident shooters,” said Conway coach Ashley Nance. “When one starts hitting one, there is no telling what will happen. We feed off that.”
The Lady Cats, who played only one senior, won their first state girls title since 2008.
Nance was a part of her fifth state championship, three as a player for Guy-Perkins, one as coach of Conway Christian and this one at Conway. The Conway girls didn’t even make the tournament field last season.
“Last year, we had girls who were used to scoring big and playing only two quarters in junior high,” Nance said.
“Then, they get in high school and are playing against players like Tyler Scaife (Little Rock Hall). These girls haven’t been through anything like that before. I hadn’t. These kids went to work and decided they didn’t want anything like that to happen again. Peaking at the right time is huge in this game.”
The Lady Cats certain peaked at the right time in the second quarter, building a 39-19 halftime lead.
Northside, on the strength of three steals and back-to-back 3-point baskets by Brianna Jackson, Jillian Myers and Jay Nee Alston, drew within 44-36 in the third quarter. A lane drive by Danberry, a 3-pointer by Estes and a three-point play by Rogers in the post held the Lady Bears at bay.
A string of seven straight points that included a 3-pointer by Willard, a layup off a steal by Danberry and a pull-up shot by Danberry pushed the Conway lead to 64-49, and the Lady Bears were visibly out of gas.
“I’m proud of the fight we showed the second half,” Smith said. “A lesser team would have crumbled after that second quarter. But we never could get over the hurdle where they (the Lady Cats) could really feel the pressure.”
Danberry, the tournament’s MVP had 25 points and four steals. Tolefree added 16 points and seven rebounds. Willard had 12 points and five rebounds. Rogers had 10 points and four rebounds.
“There was no doubt Northside would make a run, and we had to hang in there and play loose,” Nance said.
“I know coach Smith. He’s a legend. At the half, I knew he was mad.”