Since they knew their opponent almost better than they know themselves, the Cave City Cavewomen knew that if they had any plans of bringing home a state championship from Hot Springs, the one thing they could not do was get off to a slow start against their old friends from Valley Springs.
As it turns out, Cave City probably couldn't have gotten off to a slower start had it tried to.
Valley Springs scored the first 15 points of the game -- holding Cave City scoreless in the first period -- to win the Class 3A State Tournament with a 44-30 victory over the Cavewomen March 12 at Summit Arena in Hot Springs.
The win was Valley Springs' first state championship in girls' hoops since 1994.
The Lady Tigers lost a heart-breaker by one point to Charleston in last year's state title match. Cave City was in the title game after falling in the state semi-finals the past two seasons.
The Class 3A title game marked the fifth time the two 3A-1 East conference foes have hooked up this year, with Valley Springs (33-5) winning four in a row over Cave City (29-7).
"The start we hoped wouldn't happen, did happen," said Cave City Head Coach Russell Fowler after the game. "The first part of the game was the difference. Their defense is tough and when you get behind, it's even tougher. We kind of calmed down after the first quarter and started to hit some shots, but that (first quarter) was the difference."
The Lady Tigers hit Cave City with a half-court trap to open the contest, forcing the Cavewomen into four quick turnovers before they could even get a shot off.
Meanwhile, Valley Springs took advantage of that and ran out to a quick 7-0 lead.
"We hadn't used that (trap) since the first five or six games of the season," said Valley Springs Head Coach Kimberly Jenkins. "That was one of the wrinkles that we wanted to add today. Playing a team that many times, we thought we'd pull something out of our sleeve and I think it did throw them off. And that was the intention."
Valley Springs' 6-2 junior post player, Arielle Saunders, scored six of her 10 points in the first period, including the last four of the frame, to help the Lady Tigers to an 11-0 lead after one.
Saunders, who also pulled down 13 rebounds and blocked five shots, was named tournament MVP.
Valley Springs got a layup from Lexie Curtis and two free throws by Saunders early in the second, pushing the Lady Tigers in front 15-0 before the Cavewomen finally broke the ice.
Cave City's first points of the game came on a layup from Jessica Hall (five points) with 4:43 left until the half.
"Early in the game, I think their half-court trap rattled us a little bit," said Fowler. "I don't know if it caught us by surprise, but it was like we never did get adjusted early to that and then when we did, they just ran it a few more times after that."
Hall's bucket started a 7-0 run for the Cavewomen, but Valley Springs still took a 19-9 lead to the halftime break.
"It (the start to the game) was definitely big for our mentality for the way we went about things after that," Jenkins said. "We felt like the four previous times we played Cave City, we didn't play our best games, so that was our intention, to get off to a good start. We wanted to get the tip and go score our first possession and then manage things a possession at a time after that."
The Cavewomen seemed to settle down at the halftime break and when the third period started, so did Cave City's own brand of trademark defensive pressure.
Haley Bell (eight points) hit a spin move in the paint to open the frame and jumpers from Cheyenne Childers and Brooklyn Brinkley (three points) late in the frame saw Cave City down by just 10, 30-20.
Childers had a big game for Cave City with a game-high 12 points to go with five rebounds, two blocked shots and eight steals.
"We talked at the half about wanting to get it to a five-point game going into the last quarter," said Fowler.
Cave City got within six points early in the final frame, thanks to steals that Bell converted into buckets.
But then the Cavewomen hit another cold stretch, going scoreless for four minutes in the fourth, while the Lady Tigers built their lead to 18 points.
Cave City did close strong, getting two steals and buckets from Childers in the last seconds to make the final score Valley Springs 44, Cave City 30.
"You've got to take advantage of every chance you get against a team like Valley," Fowler said. "Late in the game when they were up by about 18, we could have quit, but we kept battling and got a couple of steals and didn't quit. I want to say thank you to our basketball team for playing hard for 32 minutes."
Claire Caldwell finished with two points for Cave City.
Kayla Carlton led Valley Springs with 11 points.
"I want to congratulate Valley Springs, they're a tremendous basketball team," said Fowler. "But we've got a great basketball team, too. They were just a little bit better than us today. Any time you play a team five times, you know what they're going to do and they know what you're going to do."