Class 4A No. 4 ranked Heber Springs overcame a game-high 24 points from Lonoke center Eboni Willis, using a complete team effort to put away the pesky Lady Jackrabbits 55-48 on Thursday in the semifinals of the 2-4A District Tournament.
“We didn't get good enough rotation on her and we didn't help out like we should, but she is a good player,” said Heber Springs Coach Jamey Riddle. “She (Willis) scored 17 and 15 in the first two games we played against them. She shot the ball well tonight and made some free throws.”
Riddle said it took a little while for his team to shake the cobwebs in their first game in six days. “After we woke up and realized how hard Lonoke was playing I felt like we did a good job. We executed our offense and down the stretch and we made the majority of our free throws. Hopefully, with us being in this spot before, we are starting to understand it and getting that mental toughness to take care of the basketball,” added Riddle.
In limited minutes, Heber reserve guard McKenzie Cresswell came up big with six points, including a putback late in the first quarter that gave the Lady Panthers a 9-7 lead.
When Lonoke pulled within five in the third quarter, Cresswell ran down an offensive rebound and hit a 19-foot jumper from left corner. After Lonoke closed to within five points midway through the fourth quarter, Cresswell turned an offensive rebound into two free throws.
“What I love about McKenzie is she is one of those real solid players that you can really depend on,” said Riddle. “She may not overwhelm you with a lot of points but she hits those chip shots, plays tough-nosed defense and gets up and down the court. She is a physical player. I was glad she stepped up and played some big minutes for us tonight.”
After closing the first quarter with five straight while claiming a two-point advantage, Heber opened the second period with six more in a row for a combined 11-0 run.
Forward Makenzie Martin opened the second quarter with a jumper from left elbow, then guard Skylar Johnson slashed down left baseline and finished with a short jump shot.
Forward Janae Long added a bucket in the paint off an assist from Skylar Johnson as Heber's lead grew to 15-7 before Lonoke guard Jerralyn McCall responded with a free throw.
Leading 17-10, Skylar Johnson sandwiched a pair of three-pointers around a free throw from McCall, boosting the Lady Panthers' lead to double figures before Willis scored from right block.
Long fired back with a driving layup, but Lonoke guard Callie Whitfield sank two free throws before Heber guard Hannah Johnson popped a three-pointer from left wing in the closing seconds of the first half, pushing the Lady Panthers' lead to 27-15 at intermission.
Page 2 of 2 - Willis opened the third quarter with five straight, including an old-fashioned three-point play as the Lady 'Rabbits suddenly sliced their deficit to seven, forcing Heber to call for timeout.
Following the break in action, Heber responded with five consecutive as Hannah Johnson ripped a three-pointer from right corner and Skylar Johnson came down with an offensive rebound and scored.
Willis added two more buckets and Whitfield hit a short jumper as Lonoke refused to go away, pulling within seven again before Hannah Johnson curled around a screen and buried an 18-foot jumper up top.
Lonoke closed its deficit to five when forward Kerasha Johnson made two free throws and McCall dropped a floater in transition, but Cresswell's rebound and jump shot from the corner helped the Lady Panthers get back on track.
With Heber leading 40-32 entering the fourth quarter, the 'Lady Rabbits continued to chip away, eventually cutting Heber's lead to four when McCall drove left baseline for a layup.
Heber pushed its lead to six when Skylar Johnson canned a 16-foot jumper up top at the 6:00 mark and the Lady Panthers opened up a 50-41 lead with 1:10 remaining as Hannah Johnson found Martin for a layup then Skylar Johnson turned a Cresswell steal into a pair of free throws.
Lonoke battled to the end, trimming its deficit to four when Willis sank two foul shots with 42.3 seconds left. Hannah Johnson sank 3 of 4 free throws and Skylar Johnson added two more from the stripe, sealing Heber's seven-point victory and spot in the district finals.
Following Willis' game-high 24 points for Lonoke (14-14), McCall had eight, Johnson added seven and Whitfield collected six.
Skylar Johnson led Heber (25-3) with 20 points, Hannah Johnson followed with 14, Martin finished with 10 and Cresswell chipped in six.