No. 4 ranked Heber Springs took a giant step towards its third consecutive 2-4A Conference title by defeating second-place Southside Batesville 40-35 on Tuesday at the Panther Den.
Early in the fourth quarter, the visiting Lady Southerners tied the game at 28-all when forward Jennifer Wyatt found forward Ashlynne King cutting down the lane for a layup. Heber guard Hannah Johnson responded with four quick points, including a 16-foot jumper out front, giving the Lady Panthers a three-point lead, which they never relinquished.
Lady Panthers' Coach Jamey Riddle said he placed a heavy emphasis on this game during practices leading up to the showdown. “This is probably the first time ever that I have blew up a game as far as how big it is. This was a big game for us right here to separate ourselves. We still have a lot of games on the road and if we do slip up, we still have that cushion.
“For the most part I thought they responded well. We had a second quarter where the intensity wasn't there. Southside has a good team and I knew it would be a good game. I wish we could have made more free throws down the stretch. Southside has a good defense so I knew offensively it would be a struggle and it was. I think experience has helped us pull out some of these close games,” added Riddle.
With Heber leading 32-29, King sank a free throw to pull the Lady Southerners within a bucket, but Hannah Johnson answered again, this time with a jumper one step inside the foul line.
Heber forward Makenzie Martin then picked off a pass on the perimeter and dashed to the hoop for a layup as the Lady Panthers pushed their lead to 36-30 with 3:20 remaining.
Over the next two minutes both teams struggled to find the basket as Southside managed 2 of 4 free throws by King, while Heber misfired three times on the front end of a one and one.
With Heber clinging to a 36-33 lead and only 24.3 seconds remaining, Southside's wild three-point attempt from the corner sailed behind the backboard and the Lady Panthers nearly capped the victory when guard
Skylar Johnson canned a pair of free throws.
But King drove right side for a layup to keep Southside's slim hopes alive before Martin drained a pair of free throws with 3.6 seconds left, sealing the Lady Panthers' 40-35 victory.
The Lady Panthers took an early 8-5 lead after one quarter of play as forward Janae Long pumped in six points in the opening eight minutes, while Hannah Johnson added a basket.
The two teams exchanged buckets throughout the second quarter. Heber guard Devrie Attendorn poured in nine points in the period, including a three-pointer from left wing in the closing seconds of the first half, giving the Lady Panthers a 21-18 lead at halftime.
Page 2 of 2 - Heber opened up a 26-18 lead early in the third quarter as Skylar Johnson hit a tough leaner from right side and Hannah Johnson drilled a three-pointer from right elbow, but Southside would counter with a 6-0 spurt, highlighted by Wyatt's three-pointer from right corner off an assist from guard Morgan Case.
Long stopped Southside's run with a leaning bank shot but post player Candace Smith answered with a basket in transition, leaving Heber with a 28-26 lead entering the final eight minutes of play.
The Lady Panthers outscored Southside 12-9 in the final period behind Hannah Johnson's six points.
King and Wyatt each scored nine points to pace Southside (10-7, 6-2), while Smith added eight. Hannah Johnson recorded a game-high 11 points for Heber (18-2, 9-0) and Attendorn followed with nine, while Skylar Johnson and Long each finished with eight.
The Lady Panthers hit the road tonight for the first of three consecutive road games, starting at Stuttgart. Boasting a No. 4 ranking and seeking a third straight conference championship, Riddle expects to get every team's best shot.
“We are going to get everybody's best effort. There is no doubt we got Southside's best effort tonight. When we go to Stuttgart they are going to play that card of us being ranked No. 4.
“I tell the girls they are going to get everybody's best effort every night so play like it,” emphasized Riddle. “For the most part they have responded.”