Young ICC squad gives defending NEA champ all it wants before falling late
The Izard County Consolidated Cougars sure didn't look the part of a young team battling for their first Northeast Arkansas Invitational Tournament championship. Confident, determined and hungry was how ICC looked in the early going.
By contrast, the Riverside Rebels sure looked the part of a veteran team battling for their second straight NEA championship. Confident, determined and hungry was how Riverside looked in the late going.
And in the end, the Rebels' been-there, done-that mentality was probably the difference in Riverside's 69-60 victory over the Cougars for the 1A-2A boys' division title Dec. 30 at the Convocation Center on the campus of Arkansas State University.
In addition to the advantage of having played in last year's title clash, a game in which Riverside used two buzzer-beaters to edge Cave City in overtime for the crown, the top-seeded Rebels had another big advantage over second-seeded ICC. And a "big" advantage it was.
Glen Graham, Riverside's 6-8, 270-plus pound man-mountain had a huge fourth period, tossing in 12 of his 19 points for the game in the frame, as his size finally wore down the Cougars in the race to the wire. Graham kept ICC at bay by knocking down six free throws, including a pair on old-fashioned 3-point plays, in the final period.
However, the young Cougars didn't enter the fray unarmed either. ICC's weapons cache was stocked with big performances from junior Kyle McCandlis and freshman Spencer Caraway.
McCandlis scorched the nets for six treys on his way to a game-high 23 points, while Caraway, in his first full week at the senior-high level, had a big effort inside the lane with 14 points.
McCandlis and Joey Stefka (14 points) provided most of the firepower for ICC in the first period, with each knocking down a triple in the first four minutes of play to push the Cougars in front 10-6.
The Rebels responded with six unanswered points to move on top 12-10 deep in the frame.
With time expiring in the first, McCandlis shot a trey that missed its mark. The ball bounded to the floor where Caraway got enough of a hand on it to roll it to Stefka. Stefka picked the basketball off the floor and tossed it into the hoop as the horn sounded, squaring the game at 12-all after one.
ICC kept the groove rolling in the second as McCandlis busted a 3-ball to start the stanza.
Caraway chipped in with eight big points, six on back-to-back conventional 3-point plays, to give the Cougars their biggest lead of the night, 23-17.
This lead didn't hold up long, as Riverside sped in front 27-23 thanks to a 10-0 run.
McCandlis kept things from getting out of hand by first firing in another 3-pointer, this one with 1:09 left until the half, and an old-fashioned 3-point play with 29 ticks showing on the clock.
Riverside's Cody Richardson dropped in a short floater at the halftime buzzer to keep the Rebels on top 34-31 at intermission.
The halftime break didn't seem to cool down McCandlis much at all.
Every time it appeared that Riverside might build an insurmountable lead in the third, McCandlis pulled the trigger on a triple to keep ICC within striking distance.
His last trey of the third at the 1:40 mark pulled the Cougs within a single point, 42-41.
As it turned out, this would be as close as the Cougars would come to taking over the lead.
Jordan Adcock drilled a long 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave Riverside a 46-41 advantage after three.
The Cougars kept chipping away in the fourth, but Graham seemed to find a second wind to control the low blocks. His second hoop-and-a-foul-shot at the 3:48 point extended the Rebels' lead to 58-47.
This was enough of a cushion to give Riverside its second straight NEA title with a nine-point win over a very game group of Cougars.
Adam Montgomery finished with four points for ICC, while Bubba Johnson added three, and Scott Small two.
McCandlis, Stefka and Small earned All-NEA Tournament honors for the Cougars.
The Cougars earned a berth in the finals with a 60-52 semifinal win over third-seeded Tuckerman Dec. 27 in a contest that turned into a dogfight down the stretch.
Free throw shooting in the fourth, specifically by Joey Stefka, helped the second-seeded Cougars keep Tuckerman from pulling off an upset.
Stefka went six-for-eight from the charity stripe in the last 1:30 of the game to fend off a spirited group of Bulldogs. Stefka paced ICC with 22 points on the morning.
The Cougars, who shot 10-for-16 from the free throw line in the final eight minutes of play also got two big charity tosses from James Morgan (four points) late.
Back-to-back Tuckerman hoops had pulled the Bulldogs within one, 53-52, when Morgan broke the run with a pair of free throws at the 31-second mark. That turned out to be all ICC needed, as the Cougars closed the contest on a 7-0 run, all free throws, to seal the deal.
As important as made free throws were to ICC in the fourth, a one-for-seven showing from the line in the first half by Tuckerman kept the Bulldogs from doing any major damage.
Tuckerman did take an early 5-2 lead in the first before ICC ended the stanza on a 12-2 run to lead 14-7 after one. Scott Small was key during this run, as he scored seven of his 11 points for the game in the first period.
The Bulldogs took advantage of a couple of ICC turnovers to claw back into contention in the second period.
Trailing 19-13 with 4:20 left until the half, Tuckerman jumped out on a 6-0 run to lock the game at 19-all. The Bulldogs might have enjoyed the lead at intermission had they not missed six straight free throws inside the four-minute mark.
As it was, Stefka stopped the Bulldog run with a pair of free throws to give the Cougs a 21-19 advantage at halftime.
The Cougars sped on top 32-23 midway into the fourth thanks to an 11-0 burst. Undaunted, the Bulldogs ended the frame with five consecutive points to narrow ICC's lead to 44-34 after three.
Tuckerman continued to chip away at this deficit early in the fourth, beginning the final frame on a 4-0 run to pull within three, 44-41.
The Bulldogs even held a 48-47 lead before Kyle McCandlis (10 points, seven boards) gave ICC the lead back with a putback of his own missed shot. McCandlis then sank a layup next time down court to push the Cougars on top 51-48 with 3:11 left to play.
Tuckerman had its chances to gain ground, but back-to-back turnovers by the Bulldogs held Tuckerman in check.
Although the Cougars posted just three field goals in the fourth, they did come up big from the free throw line for the second game in a row to knock off Tuckerman by eight points.
Spencer Caraway finished with five points and eight rebounds for ICC, while Steven Walker had four, and Curtis Clark two.
In quarterfinal play, the Cougars did something few teams have been able to accomplish the past couple of years -- pin a loss on the Buffalo Island Central Mustangs.
BIC, back-to-back Class AA state champions, turned out to be no match for ICC, as the Cougars used a stellar showing from the charity stripe to pass the seventh-seeded Mustangs 59-49 Dec. 23.
ICC shot 18-for-20 from the free line in the contest, including a perfect 14-for-14 down the stretch in the fourth period as BIC tried to play catchup.
Stefka paced the Cougars with 15 points.