Typically, parties on New Year's Eve hit their stride somewhere around the midnight hour.
That is unless the Izard County Consolidated Lady Cougars are on the guest list.
Not wanting to wait that long to celebrate, the Lady Cougs rang in the new year six hours before the stroke of midnight by capturing their first-ever Northeast Arkansas Invitational Tournament A-AA girls' crown at the Convocation Center on the Arkansas State University campus.
And while the tournament brackets said otherwise, it would be foolish to call fifth-seeded ICC's 80-58 dismantling of the second-seeded Buffalo Island Central Lady Mustangs an upset. Complete domination would be more accurate.
This one was all Lady Cougars from late in the first period on. Not only were the Lady Cougars sharp from the charity stripe, where they went 15-for-20, but ICC was efficient shooting from the floor, making 32 of the 61 shots it attempted on the evening.
"We were really proud to make it to the finals, and a lot of times when you get to the finals of a tournament a team can get nervous with the big crowds and all, but I was so proud of the way the girls stepped up and played," said Lady Cougar Head Coach Stan Fowler. "I've said this before, but I truly mean it; when you've got that many good teams in a tournament like that, there's a whole lot of luck involved. There's a whole lot of things that have to fall in place, and fortunately, they fell in place for us."
Those in Northeast Arkansas who had only heard about, and not seen, University of Arkansas-bound Brittney Richardson got an eyeful of the 6-0 junior from ICC.
Richardson put on a show on the Convocation Center court, posting a double-double of 34 points and 14 rebounds to go along with four assists and two blocked shots on the night. Richardson got any shot she wanted against BIC (17-5), and the Lady Mustangs simply had no answer for her.
However, the Lady Cougars brought more than just the ultra-talented Richardson to the party.
Sammi Fowler, ICC's sophomore sensation, had another brilliant outing by recording a triple-double of 22 points, 12 boards and 11 assists. Fowler, too, had her way in the lane, either tossing in mid-range jumpers or dishing off to an open teammate. Both Richardson and Fowler were selected to the All-Tournament squad for their play.
"When you've got two girls running at you, that means someone is open. It's one thing for a girl to score, but it's another thing to make the other players look good, too. But they (Richardson and Fowler) both did. They saw the floor really well. I was proud of the way they played."
But where the Lady Cougars really took care of business against the Lady Mustangs was in the paint.
Brittney Bailey had a breakout game for ICC by scoring 11 points and grabbing seven rebounds while controlling the backboard at each end of the court.
"Good things do happen to good kids, and little by little, Brittney keeps getting better," Fowler said. "She takes advantage of her size and she was able to finish off those buckets when they (BIC) were playing their trick defense on Sammi and Brittney (Richardson). She did a good job finishing inside to make them play more of an honest defense. That was a great game for her, and I was proud of her effort."
It looked for awhile in the first period that whoever had the ball last might win, with the contest tied six times in the frame.
The Lady Cougars finally put together back-to-back buckets at the 2:09 point on a jumper by Richardson and layup from Bailey.
This mini-run was all the Lady Cougars needed to get rolling, and thanks to another hoop from Bailey and slicing bucket by Fowler, ICC ended the first period with a 20-12 lead.
BIC narrowed the gap to 23-20 early in the second before the Lady Cougars stepped on the gas pedal again.
Motored by sticky hands on defense, the Lady Cougars opened up some breathing room before the half.
Haley Crotts (seven points) converted an old-fashioned 3-point play that boosted ICC's margin to 34-26, and then Courtney Blevins hit a pair of baseline layups to cap a first half that saw the Lady Cougars in command at 40-27.
"Having Haley, who's just a sophomore, gives me some depth if Bailey gets in foul trouble. She really stepped up. The whole team really stepped up," said Fowler.
The Lady Mustangs went without a field goal until the 3:58 mark of the third, at which time they were in a 49-33 hole.
Richardson drilled ICC's lone 3-pointer of the night as the third period drew to a close with ICC on top by 20, 62-42.
ICC used a 7-zip burst midway into the final frame to extend its lead to 75-51, en route to a 22-point rout of Buffalo Island Central.
Leathyr Spangler finished with two points for the Lady Cougars.
In the semi-final round, the Lady Cougs knew what to expect from the eighth-seeded Marmaduke Lady Greyhounds: 3-point shots, and plenty of them.
Relying on long-distance shooting, the Lady Greyhounds had knocked top-seeded East Poinsett County out of the tournament brackets with an upset in the quarterfinals.
However, against ICC, Marmaduke's success from beyond the arc went south in a hurry, with the Lady Cougars advancing to the finals with a 55-49 victory over the Lady Greyhounds.
Marmaduke recorded just a lone triple in 19 attempts during the first half of the contest, and for the night the Lady Greyhounds were nine-of-44 from the 3-point line.
Richardson had another stellar outing for ICC by knocking in a game-high 26 points, missing just six of her 16 shots from the floor.
Fowler tallied another big double-double, this one consisting of 14 points and 12 boards, helping the Lady Cougars to victory.