Chuck’s Corner by Chuck Livingston
HOT SPRINGS — As you may be able to imagine, I have a few thoughts on this season’s edition of the state basketball tournament, and especially the finals that I was lucky enough to attend on Thursday afternoon and evening. *** Congratulations to Earle High School for a pair of outstanding basketball seasons that ended on Thursday with a pair of championships. The boys team, one of the very best hoops programs in the entire state, capped off an absolutely demoralizing tournament run by topping district rival East Poinsett County by 20 points in the final, no small feat considering it was the second-best team in Class 2A this year. That win came after Earle dubbed Junction City by 20 in the Class 2A state semifinals. The impressive thing is that these are two of the better teams in the state, and Earle made quick work of each. They never trailed in either game and beat KIPP Delta 70-41 and Bigelow 70-54 in the second round. The Bulldogs won their final seven games and pounded those two teams by 20 apiece, as well as district rival Marked Tree by 30 in the regional final in Imboden. I know that it’s hard to compare classes and we’ll never know anyway, but Earle would have been a dangerous out for any team in any classification. Remember, they beat West Memphis at The Marion Classic in November and the Blue Devils won a game in the Class 7A tournament. Earle topped Central High from Helena-West Helena in West Memphis and the Cougars made the Class 4A semifinals. The worst loss that Earle suffered was a 40-point loss to El Dorado in Harrison, but the Wildcats were a Class 6A semifinalist, and they simply had too much size with the six-foot-ten-inch Daniel Gafford holding down the fort in the paint. Size was probably Earle’s one weakness this year, but that would be the biggest weakness for a lot of schools. Earle won its eighth state title, and they should have. They had the best team, with the best player and maybe the best coach in all of Class 2A. But you know what? How often does the best team actually win? Not all that often, right? I’m almost more impressed by Earle coming into the season with the target on their backs, taking on all comers during the regular season, losing the district final to Marked Tree in Marked Tree, and bouncing back to steamroll the competition in the state tournament. How often does a team live up to the hype? Earle did, and you have to give them a ton of credit for that. *** The boys were The Show all year long, but the girls weren’t far behind. A lot has been made about freshman point guard Roshala Scott, and for good reason. She has the chance to be one of the best basketball players from Crittenden County, boy or girl. She loves the game, she’s got a lot of God-given talent and her basketball IQ is off the charts. But Earle was already a nice team before Scott moved up. The Lady Bulldogs were the fourth team in their district and were really probably the third-best team. I’m not so sure that this Earle team with four key seniors (Andrea Allen, Janae Bowers, Takila Baker and LaDeryca Childs) wasn’t bound to make a run as it was. They were a team that already made a ton of sense and was used to playing for head coach Corey Garrett. Maybe Earle doesn’t win the district or regional title without Scott, but they would have probably made it to the state tournament. As it is, I think Earle is happy with how everything turned out what with winning their last 14 games, including what is the best girls high school basketball I’ve ever witnessed (the dramatic win against England in the state semifinals), but the seniors had a big impact on the team and I was happy to see them all have their moments in the Class 2A state title game. *** Congratulations to some real good people and great coaches for winning their respective state titles this weekend. Jerry Bridges, the head boys basketball coach at Cabot, Daryl Fimple, girls head coach at North Little Rock, and Jodi Christenberry, girls coach at Jonesboro, all won their respective state titles in Hot Springs, a fantastic cherry on top of fine 2015-2016 basketball seasons. Bridges is a guy that has always been easy to talk to after games, even tough losses, and this tournament set up very well for his Panthers to make a deep run. Cabot put on a great Class 7A state tournament and their Panthers beat all of the good teams to win the title. Did they catch a break when Bryant beat Fayetteville? Maybe so, but at least give the Panthers credit for dropping Bryant in the semifinals. They can only beat who the bracket gives them. Fimple is a guy that has really got North Little Rock rolling under his tutelage. His Lady Charging Wildcats swept nationally-ranked Little Rock Central during the regular season and outscored two-time defending Class 7A state champs Conway 15-1 down the stretch in the Class 7A title bout. They reached the finals by topping Fort Smith Northside in the semifinals. Fimple is an extremely gracious guy that works very hard and his teams always get after it for him. That’s a testament to his ability and motivational tactics. Christenberry had the best team that I saw in Class 6A all season. I liked Mountain Home’s “A game,” and Little Rock Parkview and Russellville were solid, as well. The difference is that Jonesboro slapped up the most impressive performance of the year in girls hoops, when they invaded Patriot Arena in January and led by as many as 29 points en route to a 22-point win. It’s dangerous to judge any team by one game, or even two games, but that game stood out to me as the bracket shook out during March. I covered the Russellville-Marion quarterfinal game, and while Shameka Ealy was probably the best player I saw in the tournament, I wasn’t sure that she had the help that she would need to win three state tournament games. Jonesboro’s Starr Taylor was a close second to Ealy, but the Lady Golden Hurricane had a point guard that can play, and two dead-eye shooters. In a tight game, that makes all the difference. I’m obviously partial to Sheila Burns and Shunda Johnson, as well as Larry Bray and Irving Clay, but if that group of coaches can’t win, then I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see lift the trophy than those three coaches this season. *** Speaking of, this was a top-heavy year for the 7A/6A-East, but taking down three out of four state titles in those two classes is impressive. Jonesboro wasn’t what they have been in past years, having missing the final for the first time in five seasons, but it was also a bad draw that they had to play Little Rock Parkview in the semifinals. The Patriots were the best team in Class 6A all year, and got their best game in nearly a month in the final from Pine Bluff who took them to overtime. That may throw people off the scent of the strength of the league, but remember that Marion and West Memphis finished tied for second in the overall league and those two teams combined to win three out of four games against Class 7A champion this season, with the Pats taking down a sweep. On the girls side, Jonesboro and Mountain Home split their two meetings during the season and the Lady Bombers lost a devastating game to Little Rock Parkview in the semifinals. Also, Marion gave Russellville all it wanted in the quarterfinals before falling to the tournament hosts. We were very close to getting an all 6A-East state final, and what drama that would have been. In my opinion, Cabot’s caught fire at the right moment and rode that streak to the title, but North Little Rock and Jonesboro were the best teams in their respective classes and proved that in the tournament. That’s not to take anything away from Cabot at all, I just didn’t see their best game until the tournament. *** I love Bank of the Ozarks Arena in Hot Springs, but it may be time to go to a larger building. It simply can’t accommodate the big games anymore, as the star power of Malik Monk has proven the past two seasons. On Friday night, the fire marshals shut down ticket sales when the Class 1A games sold out and those fans hung around for the Monk-Cabot showdown later on. That was probably the move, but you’ve got Cabot within spitting distance of Hot Springs and a huge name in Monk coming to town, you simply don’t want that to happen. *** So that’s it for the 2015-2016 hoops season. Buckle up for this year’s All-County team, and it will be the most loaded edition to date with a pair of state titlesits, two quarterfinal participants, a 9-5 7A/6A-East Marion boys team and a 28-7 West Memphis Christian boys squad. I hope you enjoyed reading about the local teams this year, because I had all of the fun covering them for you. Now, let’s play ball.