Earle nabs 8th state title against East Poinsett County
By Chuck Livingston Sports Editor
HOT SPRINGS — Billy Murray told anyone who’d listen that playing a team four times in a given season was a dangerous proposition. Such was the issue facing his Earle Bulldogs in this season’s state basketball title game against East Poinsett County, a team that Earle had beaten two times in the regular season and once in the district tournament for a total of three victories. Make it four. Earle (25-4 overall) eliminated EPC. (16-11 overall) yesterday, running away from the game Warriors 68-48 in front of 2,468 fans at Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs, winning a state title for the eighth time in school history, all of which have come since 1975. It was the school’s first title since 2012. “This is a great group of young men,” said Murray, who won his fourth state title at Earle last night. “We’ve fought through adversity all year long. This is one of the most talented groups that I’ve ever had a chance to coach. Our point guards are very good. Our post-men are strong. Even the guys that didn’t get to play, they had a role and they carried it out.” In a game where the Bulldogs never trailed, Earle got a game-high 30 points from senior guard Marcus Brown. Brown was named the Class 2A state tournament Most Outstanding Player. He was previously named the 2A-3 district’s Player of the Year, as well. “I’m thinking about getting this ring right now,” joked the high-flying guard, drawing a laugh from the assembled media members postgame. “Every time I go out on the court, I’ve got my team with me. Well, it’s my family really, and I know they’re gonna step up, so I just want to do my part.” It was in the context of that district that Earle saw E.P.C. at home and away during the regular season, and once more during that district’s tournament, and two of those games were decided by less than 10 points. However, Earle jumped E.P.C. from the tip with the title on the line. The Bulldogs scored the first seven points of the game, drawing a prompt time-out from the Warriors. Earle would lead by as much as 13-3 in the opening frame. However, E.P.C. was intent on making a game of it. The Warriors worked to within 17-11 after the first quarter, thanks to some sharp three-point shooting. The Warriors made three of their four attempts from distance in the opening quarter, and six of 12 from there for the game. “We knew that the corner three-pointer would be open, especially against that 1-3-1 (zone),” explained E.P.C. head coach McKenzie Pierce. “Looking back on it, we may feel like maybe we should have shot about 12 more.” Earle led 30-24 in the second quarter when a Billy Murray Jr. jumper shot with 8.1 seconds gave his team a 32-24 half-time lead. E.P.C. was still within seven points with 3:27 left in the third quarter when Earle senior guard Donte Garrett hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to give his squad a 41-28 lead. “I think we had to call a time-out there because we were stuck in a rut,” said Murray of his team’s narrow seven-point advantage in the third. “The momentum was shifting, I thought, and the three that he (Garrett) hit, it gave us a boost.” Brown would score on a lay-up to give Earle a 43-28 advantage, its largest of the night to that point. Earle would claim a 45-33 lead after three, aided by five E.P.C. turnovers in that stanza. The Warriors would get within 10 points early in the fourth quarter, but a runner from Murray was followed by a pair of free throws from Brown and Earle had surged back ahead 51-38. The Bulldogs would score nine of the game’s final 10 points to clinch the final. Murray had high praise for this edition of Bulldog basketball. “This is a tough bunch right here,” said the coach. “It’s a hard-headed bunch too, but anytime you can get to this stage right here, it says a lot about the program that you’ve got. It says a lot about everything.” It was Earle’s eighth state title in school history. Only Little Rock Central (18), Pine Bluff (13), Little Rock Parkview (12), Jonesboro (11), Little Rock Hall (10), Fort Smith Northside (9) and North Little Rock (9) have won more titles. In addition to Brown’s total, Garrett added 11, Gerry Bohanon hit for nine and Murray scored eight. Murray led Earle with eight rebounds, while Bohanon added six. E.P.C. was led by J’Sebian Brown’s 15 points, while Xzavier Reed and Clay Malone posted 10 apiece. Reed was tops in rebounds, reeling in nine, while Malone also came down with six.