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Destination: Spa City

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Standing at a shade under six-feet tall, Curtis Clark is not the tallest player on the Izard County Cougars' basketball roster.

However, after his performance in the semifinals of the Class 1A State Basketball Tournament, try telling that to his teammates.

For on this night, Clark stood head and shoulders above the crowd, turning in the performance of a lifetime to help Izard County knock off the state's top-ranked Class 1A team, the Bradley Bears, 68-64 at Pioneer Pavilion on the North Arkansas College campus in Harrison.

The four-point victory sends Izard County to Summit Arena in Hot Springs, where it will face the Nevada County Blue Jays on March 7 for a shot at the school's first-ever state basketball championship.

And that trip to Hot Springs is due in large part to a large night from Clark.

He dominated the third period by tossing in nine points as the Cougars played catchup to the Bears (33-3). Clark finished the game with 16 points, all coming in the first three periods of play, along with five boards and a game-high seven assists.

Izard County (33-6), the state's third-ranked Class 1A team, was in a 39-35 hole early in the third when Clark got busy.

He scored the Cougars' first four baskets of the frame, including a 3-ball at the 2:54 mark that gave Izard County a 46-45 lead. That shot was followed quickly by a putback from Spencer Caraway (11 points, seven rebounds, three assists) and triple from the top of the key via the hands of Kyle McCandlis (17 points, nine boards, four dimes), pushing Izard County in front 51-46.

But the Bears got two free throws from Patric James and a layup by Cedrick Manning to ease within one, 51-50, after three.

Bradley pulled in front 54-51 early in the third, but Izard County went on a 5-0 run, keyed by hoops from Scott Small (four points) and Chase Massey (17 points, four assists).

The Bears clawed back to switch the lead onto their side at 62-61 with a minute-and-a-half left.

But cool as a jug of ice water, Massey pulled up and drilled a huge 3-pointer that gave the lead back to Izard County at 64-62. And this time, the Cougars would hang onto it.

McCandlis hit a pair of free throws to extend Izard County's advantage to 66-62 with 31 ticks left on the clock. The Cougars, who didn't attempt a free throw until the fourth period, were money from the stripe, knocking in eight-of-10. Bradley was not so dialed in from the line, as the Bears made just 10 of the 18 foul shots they were presented with in the contest.

Bradley had a couple of chances to chip into the lead, but the Bears missed back-to-back 3-point tries before Manning stuck back a miss with 11 seconds left to give his team hope.

But McCandlis quickly dispatched that hope by canning two free throws with five ticks left to seal the deal on Izard County's 68-64 victory in the team's first-ever appearance in the Final Four.

Bradley paid close attention to McCandlis in the first period, draping a defender on his every move.

The result of this was Massey found himself open for a pair of long treys, with McCandlis breaking free long enough to knock down a 3-ball late in the frame to lock the game at 19-all.

Bradley moved in front 21-19 after one on a steal and layup from Christian Larry at the buzzer.

Clark began to flex his muscles in the second, as he hit a trey and followed that with a jumper for two points to keep Izard County close to the Bears.

Massey then gave the Cougars their first lead of the night by sinking his third and fourth trifectas of the first half, after Clark had drawn a charge on Christian Larry on Bradley's side of the court.

McCandlis then chipped in with a long 3 to give Izard County a 33-28 lead.

Bradley didn't sit still, though.

The Bears rattled off a 10-2 run to push in front 38-35 at intermission.

Then in the third, Clark stepped up, made sure Izard County hung tough long enough to wrest the lead, and then hold it, from Bradley.

Dustin Noblin finished with two points for the Cougars, while Steven Walker added one.

In the quarterfinals, Izard County overcame a sluggish third period to knock off the St. Paul Saints 56-45.

Massey hit a pair of big 3-balls in the second half just when the Cougars needed them the most.

The Saints (35-6), ranked number seven in Class 1A, were in a 28-18 hole at the half.

But that hole quickly disappeared in the third period.

After a stickback by Massey (19 points) opened the third period and gave Izard County a 30-18 lead, St. Paul rallied.

The Saints reeled off 11 unanswered points, knocking the Cougars back on their heels, to pull within one, 30-29.

McCandlis (24 points) drained a jumper for Izard County to half the St. Paul run, but the Saints kept pace with an inside bucket from big Ben Durbin to remain just one point off the pace.

That's when Massey struck.

He nailed a huge trey right at the buzzer to edge Izard County in front 35-31 after three. Massey's triple was just Izard County's third field goal of the frame, as St. Paul outscored the Cougars 13-7 in the third.

Massey's buzzer-beating triple seemed to spark Izard County, and the Cougars quickly fed off this momentum by posting the first six points of the fourth period to move on top by 10, 41-31.

St. Paul refused to go completly away, however, and Luiz Gioelli knocked down a 3-pointer with 3:16 left in the game to keep St. Paul close, down by 48-40.

Then it was Massey time again.

He stopped and pulled the trigger on his second big trey of the second half, and then added a pair of free throws, to turn an eight-point lead into a 53-40 advantage for Izard County with a shade over two minutes left on the clock.

In addition to Massey's big second half, the Cougars also got a boost from some steady free throw shooting. Izard County went 10-for-12 from the stripe in the final eight minutes of play to salt the game away.

Izard County exploded out of the blocks in the first period. That is after the Cougs finally got their hands on the basketball.

St. Paul started the game by taking the air out of the ball with passes around the perimeter in an obvious attempt to keep the high-powered Cougars from touching the ball.

This worked to a point, but after the Saints had melted three minutes off the clock, Izard County had enough and stole the ball.

This led to a bucket from Small (four points) for the game's first points.

Then Izard County started its free-wheeling ways and unleashed its full-court, scrambling defense.

McCandlis took advantage of this uptempo pace by drilling back-to-back-to-back 3-balls, pushing his squad to an 11-3 lead.

Massey hit a jumper at the horn to send the teams to the second period with the Cougars leading 15-5.

St. Paul hit three 3-pointers in the early part of the second, but Izard County stayed in front and held a 28-18 lead at intermission.

And Although they cooled off in the third, the Cougars still got some important hoops when they really needed them, including Massey's pair of big triples, to stave off St. Paul 56-45, earning a trip to the Class 1A Final Four.

In the first round of play Feb. 26, the Cougars (32-6) raced by the County Line Indians (18-20) 58-46, paced by a game-high 23 points and eight boards from Caraway.

Catching the ball on the low blocks whenever he wanted, Caraway was just too much for County Line to deal with.

And when Caraway was not abusing the Indians in the paint, McCandlis was bombing away from 3-point land to further torment County Line.

McCandlis (15 points, six rebounds) poured in three treys in the first period, while Massey (six points) chipped in with a triple of his own.

At the end of the first period, Izard County held a 20-9 advantage.

Walker (four points) hit two buckets for the Cougs in the second period, with Small (four points) adding one and Caraway two, boosting Izard County in front 31-18 at the half.

County Line regrouped a bit at intermission and scored the first two buckets of the second half.

But Izard County was ready with a response.

Massey hit a 3-ball and Caraway spun free for back-to-back hoops in the pant, keeping the Cougars in front 38-24.

McCandlis popped two jumpers near the end of the frame to give Izard County a 44-33 lead after three.

And that was as close as the Indians would get, with Izard County advancing with a 58-46 victory.

Noblin tallied four points for the Cougars, with Clark adding two.

Dalton Palarino led County Line with 16 points.

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