Heber Springs put forth a valiant effort against top-ranked Malvern on Friday in the Class 4A state quarterfinals, opening the second half with an 11-2 run while forging a 33-33 tie.
But from that point the Lady Leopards showed why they won the 7-4A Conference and South Regional while only losing one game to a 4A opponent all season. In the final five minutes of the third quarter, Malvern outscored Heber 14-2 to pull away with a 58-45 victory.
Malvern defeated Star City 33-23 in Saturday's semifinal round, setting up a title game versus North Regional champion Prairie Grove.
Heber, which returns four starters next season, closed out the year with a record of 27-5. “This is where you want to be, just to have the opportunity to play a [game] like this,” said Heber Coach Jamey Riddle.
“You've got to beat the best to be the best and we had that opportunity and the effort was there all night long.
“I think their length gave us a little trouble. They deflected some passes and made us alter some of our passes and that kinda got to us a little bit. But to have the opportunity to be here against the No. 1 team in 4A and knowing we were just right there … I would feel comfortable playing them again and having another opportunity,” added Riddle.
Heber took early leads of 2-0 and 4-3 on a pair of midrange jumpers from guard Skylar Johnson, while Malvern guard Raven Baker countered with two three-pointers.
The Lady Panthers knotted the score at 6-all when forward Makenzie Martin grabbed a rebound and scored, but Malvern forward Akasha Westbrook pushed the Lady Leopards back on top with a stick back.
Heber guard Hannah Johnson responded with a 14-foot jumper from left baseline off an assist from twin sister Skylar Johnson before Malvern forward Alivia Huell turned a steal into a free throw. Huell missed the second free throw, but Westbrook snared the rebound and finished for an 11-8 lead.
Heber pulled within one when Martin hit a turnaround jumper from right block. But, with time winding down, Baker drilled her third trey of the first quarter, giving the Lady Leopards a 14-10 lead entering the second stanza.
Heber senior guard Devrie Attendorn slashed into the lane for a layup as the Lady Panthers cut their deficit to a bucket early in the second quarter, but Malvern answered again, this time with a 5-0 spurt, highlighted by Huell's old-fashioned three-point play.
Trailing 19-12, Martin canned a pair of free throws then Skylar Johnson drove left baseline and hit a short jumper as Heber trimmed Malvern's lead to three.
Huell fired back with a bucket deep in the paint and Malvern guard Shakara Penix ripped a three-pointer from right wing as the Lady Leopards sandwiched five points around a pull up jumper from Skylar Johnson.
Page 2 of 2 - Westbrook buried a 17-foot jumper up top as Malvern extended its lead to double figures before Martin sank two free throws. The Lady Leopards fired back with four straight, including a short jumper by Huell following a steal by Penix, taking a 31-20 lead and causing Heber to use its second timeout in a span of less than two minutes.
In the final minute of the first half, Martin knocked down a jumper from right elbow off an assist from forward Mary Lawrence, leaving the Lady Panthers with a 31-22 deficit heading into the locker room.
Heber came out of the gate on fire in the second half as Martin scored four quick points, including a pull up jumper from right elbow and a putback in transition. After Westbrook scored deep in the paint off an assist from Baker, Heber tied the game with seven consecutive, starting when Hannah Johnson scored off a back cut and assist from Attendorn.
On Heber's next possession, Hannah Johnson nailed a three-pointer from top of the key off an assist from Skylar Johnson and moments later Attendorn sank a 16-foot jumper from right wing, tying the score at 33-all.
Baker countered with two quick baskets for Malvern, including a steal and layup that gave the Lady Leopards a 37-33 lead. Skylar Johnson answered with a runner in the lane, but the Lady Panthers seemingly ran out of gas from there on out, while Malvern closed the third period with an 8-0 spurt behind four points from Huell.
Down 47-35, Heber never gave up, getting back into contention by opening the fourth quarter with four straight as Hannah Johnson swiped a steal and scored then Lawrence pulled down an offensive rebound and sank a turnaround jumper.
With just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Huell flashed into the middle of Heber's patented 1-3-1 zone defense and scored off an assist from guard Tiffany Murdock.
Midway through the final period, Heber's offense went cold as Malvern took its time on the offensive end to thwart any comeback hopes for the Lady Panthers, who won their third consecutive 2-4A Conference championship this season.
Huell scored a game-high 20 points for Malvern (31-2), Baker followed with 16 and Westbrook finished with 11. Martin paced Heber with 14 points, Hannah Johnson added 13 and Skylar Johnson had 10.
Jamey Riddle was disappointed with the loss, but remains excited about the future.
“The girls did all I could really ask for this year. Winning the conference championship and winning a game in state … I don't think that has happened.
“It could have but I don't know of it. We have a lot to build off. We built off last year and hopefully if we can build off this year we can be in the finals [next year],” added Riddle.