Heber Springs improved to 9-1 at the friendly confines of the Panther Den, defeating Class 4A No. 4 ranked Lonoke 54-48 while crushing the Jackrabbits' hopes for a share of the 2-4A Conference title in front of a raucous home crowd that celebrated Senior Night with a 'White Out' promotion.
“They were fighting for a share of the conference title and we were fighting for a bye in the district tournament,” said Heber Coach Chris Yielding. “By winning that game we will be no lower than a fourth seed. This was a big win being Senior Night. The guys knew what needed to be done tonight and took care of business.”
In honor of Senior Night, senior guard Cody Blaylock joined senior guard Judson Smith, a three-year standout, in the starting lineup.
The Panthers trailed for less than 30 seconds the entire game, using a strong team effort to pull off the upset while clinching a bye in this week's district tournament at Newport.
“From top to bottom everybody that hit the floor played their butts off, they blocked out, they played hard and their defense was right,” said Yielding.
"We had a stretch there where we had a few hiccups and some things we needed to get ironed out come tournament time but I am proud of these guys. They worked their tail off and we came away with the win against the No. 4 team in the state,” added Yielding.
Lonoke took its lone lead at 3-1 when guard Dra Offord drained a three-pointer from right wing early in the first quarter, but the Panthers fired back with a 7-0 spurt, ignited by versatile forward Mason Schroeder, who used a spin move to score from left block.
Panther forward Aaron Brown followed with a deep three-pointer from right wing then Schroeder hit a tough 9-foot leaner over three defenders, pushing Heber's lead to 8-3.
Lonoke whittled its deficit to a bucket when guard Jamel Rankin slashed down left baseline and finished with a double-clutch shot, but Brown answered with a fall away bank shot from left side, giving the Panthers a 10-6 advantage after one period of play.
Brown, who hit his last two shots in the first quarter, opened the second quarter with two consecutive three-pointers, one from deep right wing off an assist from guard Austin “Red” Adkins, then another trey from deep left wing.
“He [Brown] had the green light. Some of those he made were deep,” emphasized Yielding. “He stepped up big and got us a lot of momentum going for the rest of the game.”
With Heber leading 16-8, Brown remained in a zone, knocking down a 12-foot jumper from right wing over two defenders then forward Michael Kramer used a spin move to get free for a bucket from right block before Schroeder buried a three-pointer up top.
Page 2 of 2 - Trailing 23-10 with 2:30 left until intermission, Lonoke closed the first half with a 5-0 run, including two baskets by Rankin as the 'Rabbits pulled within eight at 23-15 going into the locker room.
Schroeder and Lonoke guard Darrius McCall swapped three-pointers early in the third quarter before Heber pushed its lead back to double figures as Smith ripped a three-pointer from left corner and Kramer sliced down the middle of the lane and finished with a scoop shot in heavy traffic.
Following a timeout with 3:18 left in the third quarter, the 'Rabbits began nibbling away at their deficit, outscoring the Panthers 7-2 behind four points from forward Blake Mack and three more from McCall.
Leading 33-25 entering the final eight minutes of play, Smith opened the fourth quarter with a three-pointer from right wing then Schroeder nailed a three-pointer from top of the key off an assist from Brown, boosting Heber's lead to 11.
Lonoke began chipping away, eventually trimming Heber's lead to five when power forward Zach Risner recorded a putback and Blake scored in transition, causing the Panthers to take a timeout with 3:02 remaining.
Following the break in action, Adkins hit two free throws then Kramer found Schroeder cutting backdoor for a layup and 50-41 lead, which the Panthers maintained with their stout zone defense, which limited penetration and forced Lonoke to shoot from the outside most of the game.
Mack paced Lonoke (17-5, 12-2) with 15 points, Rankin added 13 and McCall finished with eight.
Schroeder pumped in a game-high 16 points for Heber (14-9, 8-6), Brown followed with 15, Kramer added 11, while Smith and Adkins each chipped in six.