Sophomore sensation Caraway sinks 21, grabs 19, earns MVP
Although they were sailing in uncharted waters and had hit a rough spot, they didn't panic and jump overboard.
Instead, they listened to their captain, got all hands on deck, righted the ship and hit their destination port as scheduled: the Class 1A state championship trophy.
Stoked by an amazing 21-point, 19-rebound double-double from State Tournament MVP Spencer Caraway, the Izard County Cougars topped the Nevada County Blue Jays 60-51 in the Class 1A finals March 7 at Summit Arena in Hot Springs.
The nine-point victory over Nevada (30-8) gives the Cougars (35-6) their first-ever state basketball championship in their first-ever trip to the finals.
But it wasn't easy.
Midway through the third period, Nevada broke out its full-court press and gave the Cougars fits.
With Jonathan Evans as chief antagonist, the Blue Jays ripped off six straight points, all off steals generated from the press and all without the ball leaving Nevada's side of the court. This gave the Blue Jays their biggest lead of the game, 34-26, and prompted Izard County Head Coach David Harmon to call timeout with 4:38 left in the third to stem the incoming tide.
"When they made their run was when we had several turnovers around halfcourt," said Harmon. "And as quick as they are, if they get a hand on the ball, they're going to be shooting layups. We talked all week long that we had to keep turnovers to a minimum."
This timeout did wonders for the Cougars, as Izard County proceeded to go on a period-ending 9-zip run to restore order and take a 35-34 lead after three. Chase Massey (11 points, seven boards) exploded for six points during that spurt, while Caraway added a bucket and Steven Walker (five points) tossed in a free throw.
"We tried to just settle down a little bit. Against a press, we've got to believe that a press can't hurt you, but you can hurt yourself with a press. A lot of times when teams are making runs, you'll see a lot of teams get out there and go a little bit quicker," Harmon said. "We try to slow it down. I felt like we were going too quick at that point in time. Once we settled down and took care of the basketball, we extended the lead."
And extend the lead, the Cougars did.
The Blue Jays' first hoop of the fourth came with 5:08 left in the game, on a 3-pointer from Kelvin Box. Evans (24 points) added a layup to pull Nevada within two, 42-40, before the Cougars opened up some breathing room.
Kyle McCandlis (eight points) scored on a give-and-go, followed by back-to-back hoops in the paint from Caraway and Scott Small (six points) that stretched Izard County's lead to 48-40 with 2:51 left to play.
Then came the back-breaker for Nevada.
The Cougars missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:52 left to play, but Small was there to rip down the rebound and stick it back in while being fouled. Small completed the old-fashioned 3-point play to push Izard County in front 51-44.
The Cougars then put the game on ice by going seven-for-eight from the charity stripe, including four straight from Dustin Noblin (nine points), to cap the Class 1A State Tournament title in front of 2,974 at Summit Arena.
"Nevada's got a heck of a club. They deserved to be here today." said Harmon. "We're ecstatic to be in this situation. As a coach, as a player, that's something you always dream about -- to be in position to be in a state championship game, and fortunately we got here today, and fortunately we came out on top."
And the Cougars opened the game like they were indeed on a mission, jumping in front 9-0 to start the contest.
Caraway tossed in seven of Izard County's first nine points of the afternoon, making sure the Cougars had solid footing to walk on.
"It was very important (the early lead). That's one of the things we talked about in the dressing room, to come out and get off to a good start," Harmon said. "We felt like if we could get out and shake their confidence a bit, that would be a big key to the ballgame. We knew that wouldn't be the ballgame (getting out to an early lead), you've still got to finish it off, and they proved how good a club they were by not panicking and coming back to lead at halftime."
Nevada did fight back to pull within one, 10-9 after one, by scoring the last six points of the first period.
The Blue Jays took their first lead, 21-20, with 3:13 left until the half, as Evans got hot in the second and scored eight straight points for his team.
"Our scouting report was how good a shooter he (Evans) was. We made sure we knew where he was at all times. He could also penetrate and he got some easy baskets on us, from that penetration," said Harmon. "But he didn't get as much from the 3-point line, so we did a good job there. He's a good player. They've got several good players that can get by you on the dribble and create their own shots."
The Blue Jays, despite giving up the first nine points of the game to Izard County, managed to hang onto the lead at intermission, up 24-22.
"We knew it was just a two-point ballgame in the state championship game," Harmon said. "We were in the same situation against Bradley in the semifinals. And we knew Nevada and Bradley were two of the best teams we've seen this year, especially in Class A. We wanted to regroup, come out and play some good defense and run our offense a little bit better, get the ball inside more. And we wanted to make sure we got to the free throw line in the second half."
And though they hit a shaky spot in the third, the Cougars managed to do all of the above. The Blue Jays also got to the charity stripe, but they only hit six-of-17 for the game.
Massey slashed his way to the rack in the second half, while Caraway was a force on both ends of the court, scoring with up-and-unders on offense, while limiting Nevada to one shot by cleaning the glass on defense or blocking a couple of shot attempts when the Blue Jays had the ball close to the bucket.
"We had to have every one of those points and every one of those rebounds if we were going to win this ballgame tonight," Harmon said of Caraway's MVP performance. "Spencer plays a lot of AAU ball and is used to this kind of competition. He did an excellent job. He stepped up and he's just a sophomore."
Nevada didn't fold and eased its way within two points midway into the third, but Izard County had not lost to a Class 1A team all season, and the Cougars were not about to let that streak end in the championship game of the state tournament, winning by nine points.