Upset-minded Blue Devils succumb to Tigers
By Billy Woods WM School District
CABOT — With cell phones recording his every move even in warm-ups and fans shrieking his name, it was clear Malik Mania had swept through Cabot on Thursday night. Celebrities dotted the standing-room-only crowd to see Bentonville phenom Malik Monk, from governor Asa Huchingson (whose grandson by the same name plays for the Tigers) to Kentucky head coach John Calipari to Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson to former Razorback great Marvin Delph, it appears the only big name who didn’t make it was Frank Sinatra. The Monk Show was all set and the Tigers were ready to laugh their way to the semifinals of the Class 7A state tournament here Thursday night. Except for one thing: The West Memphis Blue Devils made things very uncomfortable for the Bentonville team that spent a couple of weeks in the national rankings. Fearless sophomore Zachary Byrd, he of the endless motor, played well above his six-feet-even listed height by staring down the vaunted Tigers before Monk’s squad left with a 52-48 quarterfinal victory. The 3,000-plus audience clearly came to see Monk, whom Rivals.com ranks as the No. 3 senior in the U.S. And the 6-foot-4 superstar point guard, who spurned Anderson and the Hogs to sign with Kentucky, didn’t disappoint for the most part. He scored a game-high 21 points, including two spectacular dunks and two free throws that clinched the victory with 4.6 seconds to play. But Larry Bray’s band of runts very nearly ruined the party. A three-pointer by West Memphis senior Ahmere Albert with 1:44 to play in the game cut what once was a 13-point second-half lead for Bentonville to two points (48-46). Later, Albert hit a layup with 5.4 seconds to play to make it 50-48 Bentonville before West Memphis’ Brandon Atwood fouled Monk, with 4.6 seconds to play. The Tiger standout flushed both free throws to effectively put the game away. All in all, it was a gallant effort by a West Memphis team whose ascension from also-ran early in the season to serious contender by season’s end, was applauded by most in attendance, not the least of which was its own head coach Bray. “I’m real proud of these guys,” said Bray, sitting between Byrd and senior guard Dylan Gazo in the postgame interview room. “The way we started this season we were struggling and trying to find our identity, but we just went to work trying each day to get better and that’s what we did.” When asked further to compare the fight in his club to other Blue Devil squads in his 31-year tenure, Bray said, “I won’t soon forget this team. They’re a great bunch of guys.” Monk and the Tigers (21-8) made their way onto the court following the Little Rock Central-Fayetteville girls game to a rousing ovation by the full house. Cell phones were raised to record the event. The Honorable Huchingson and Calipari were seated together in a box at one end of the court. The setting didn’t faze Monk, according to the Tiger player. “For us it’s pretty normal stuff,” Monk said. “I think (Calipari’s) been to, what, two or three of our games this year? He flies in and leaves before the game is over, so I don’t get to talk to him.” The Blue Devils, whose season ends at 17-12, ran out to a 7-2 lead in the first quarter before Bentonville threatened to pull away behind Monk’s 13 first-half points. But with Byrd’s body flying all over the court, the Blue Devils just wouldn’t give in. Byrd scored 13 points and had a team-high 6 rebounds to go along with 4 blocks, including three in a 30-second span that brought the crowd to its feet. The West Memphis rookie displayed a steely countenance when asked after the game if he’d given thought to playing against who is expected to be a future NBA star. “Intimidation never entered my mind,” said Byrd. “I don’t care if I hear your name all over the news, you still have to come in here and prove you’re better than me. I’m going to give you the fight of your life.” Bentonville led 33-22 at halftime on the strength of 13 of 22 shooting (.590 percentage) from the field overall, including 4 of 8 from three-point distance. But the smaller Blue Devils played Bentonville to a dead heat in rebounds at 23-23 and they turned the Tigers over 11 times in the second half. “I really wasn’t concerned about the defense part for us coming in because I knew the effort would be there,” Bray explained. “I thought if we shot it good tonight we might win. We really didn’t shoot it as well as we have been.” Indeed, the Blue Devils shot .363 percent from the field and 10 of 17 from the free-throw line for .588 percent. But as Bray said, his club defended their behinds off and contested every Bentonville shot. The Tigers were only able to shoot .333 from the field in the second half and the Blue Devils made them earn every one of their 8 baskets. “I thought (West Memphis) was real scrappy and played real hard,” Bentonville coach Jason McMahan said. “Their defensive physicality gave us trouble.” A windmill breakaway dunk by Monk with 4:34 to play in the third quarter gave his team a 40-27 lead. But the Blue Devils scored the next four points, three of them coming from Byrd, to stop the bleeding. Bentonville led 42-31 heading into the fourth quarter. Byrd’s three-point play with 4:43 to play, followed by a short banker by Gazo, who poured in 12 points, made it very interesting at 46-40 with 3:46 still to play. The normally potent three-point shooting by the Blue Devils was once again held in check in the state tournament, but Albert’s trey with 1:44 put a scare into Bentonville, making it a two-point game. A turnover by Byrd, however, coupled with a layup by Bentonville’s Huchingson, who was plagued by early foul trouble and ended with only 4 points, made it a two-possession game with 40 seconds left. “One of my goals tonight was for us to get at least one shot for every possession,” said Bray. “We didn’t do that in key moments.” Senior Robert Harris joined Byrd atop the Blue Devil scoring column with 13 points. Albert added 5. Only one other Bentonville player scored in double figures with junior Jordan Hemphill scoring 10 points. Bentonville will face Van Buren in a 1 p.m. semifinal game Saturday.