Sometimes, the best team is not the team that emerges from tournament play with the championship hardware.
Sometimes, it's the hottest team in the tourney field that comes out on top.
This year, the Calico Rock Lady Pirates are both the best and the hottest team in Class 1A.
With a 50-38 victory over the Sacred Heart Lady Rebels in the Class 1A state championship game March 11 at Summit Arena, the Lady Pirates earned their fourth state title, their first since the 1976 campaign.
The victory over Sacred Heart in the title game was the Lady Pirates' 21st straight win, making them one of the hottest teams around. Their last loss came on Dec. 29 to the Class 4A champions from Shiloh Christian.
And with seven or eight players leading the way in scoring at various times this season, Calico Rock (37-5) was certainly one of the best and most balanced teams on the scene this year.
As with most championship teams, defense paves the way to the ultimate prize.
That was most definitely the case in Calico Rock's victory over the Lady Rebels.
Trailing 26-21 at the half, Calico Rock switched things up a bit on the defensive end of the court and blew the doors off Sacred Heart in the second half.
Using a smothering zone trap, the Lady Pirates held the Lady Rebels to just three points in the third period -- and 12 for the entire second half -- after Sacred Heart racked up 26 points in the first two periods of play. Calico Rock also harassed the Lady Rebels into four-for-24 (16.7 percent) shooting from the floor, and one-for-13 from beyond the 3-point arc, in the second half.
"Heart and determination (was the key). It's real simple. We didn't play real well in the first half, but defensively, we adjusted some things at halftime," said Calico Rock Head Coach Josh Wright. "We went to a zone trap that we hadn't used much all year, but we've been working on it since Christmas with the intent of using it in some big games. And there's no bigger stage to use it on than the one we did tonight."
Paced by seven points in the third from Class 1A MVP Emily Johnson (17 points), plus a pair of huge triples from Brooke McCurley (13 points) and Sloan Lively, Calico Rock outscored Sacred Heart (32-6) 17-3 in the third to turn a 26-21 halftime deficit into a 38-29 Lady Pirates advantage after three periods of play. The Lady Pirates opened the frame on a devastating 14-0 run to grab command.
And while Calico Rock did find its shooting stroke in the third, for Wright, it was all about putting the clamps on Sacred Heart on the Lady Rebels' side of the court.
"We held Sacred Heart to three points in the third period. And 12 points in the second half," he said. "We've been primarily a man-to-man defensive team most of this year, but it just wasn't working tonight. But I knew we had something in our bag they hadn't seen us run all year (the zone trap). And being able to pull that out in the second half ... I had confidence in it. That zone defense did two things for us -- one, it kept them from shooting the ball as well (as they did in the first half) and two, it really helped us win the ballgame."
The Lady Rebels went on a 7-0 run late in the fourth, pulling within 42-38, but that was as close as Sacred Heart could get.
McCurley, Brittany Fountain (six points) and Karli Gillihan (five points) combined to go six-for-six from the charity stripe in the last 1:10 of play, while Taylor Cox ( six points) added a late jumper to preserve Calico Rock's 50-38 win.
"We knew how good Calico Rock was ... how physical and athletic they were and that it would be a tough ballgame," said Sacred Heart Head Coach Jeremy Simon. "We got the better half of them in the first half, but we really struggled in the second half. Shooting from the 3-point line in the second half, we were one-for-13. We were getting open shots, but we just couldn't hit those shots. The majority of the time, we hit those. We just didn't tonight. They're long-armed and we'd turn it over. It just did not go our way in that third quarter. That was pretty much the difference in the ballgame."
Keyleigh Fresneda led Sacred Heart with 14 points. Miranda Smith, Sacred Heart's low-post force who went off for 33 points in the Lady Rebels' semi-final win over Crowley's Ridge Academy, was held to just 10 points in the title game, thanks to some solid defense by Cox.
"Taylor Cox is just a solid defender," said Wright. "I knew that putting Taylor on Smith was just like putting Taylor on Brooke Poole in the quarterfinals against Kingston. They're both (Smith and Poole) excellent offensive players. I felt like if we put Taylor on Smith, we could keep her out of the post and hold her under 15 points and fortunately, it worked."
Sacred Heart reeled off the first three hoops of the game to jump in front 7-0.
But Johnson quickly answered with back-to-back treys for Calico Rock, followed by a spinning move in the paint from Cox. McCurley drilled a 3-ball late in the first to give the Lady Pirates an 11-9 lead after one.
Then, Sacred Heart took over in the second period.
The Lady Rebels' full-court press didn't bother Calico Rock that much, but when the Lady Pirates got the ball in the lane, they just could not get the ball to go in the bucket.
But Calico Rock didn't give up and just accept the fact they would go to the half trailing by double digits.
In the last 19 seconds of play, Cox swished a big-time trey and Gillihan tipped in a missed shot at the buzzer to pull the Lady Pirates within five, down 26-21 at intermission.
It also gave Calico Rock a shot of momentum that it would put to good use in the third period.
"We kind of quit there (right before the half). If we pull down that rebound, we go into the half with a seven-point lead," said Simon. "That was a big moment for them and it made us sick at our stomach for giving up that rebound. It really gave them some momentum right there at the half. But I was proud to have that five-point lead at the half."
That five-point lead quickly vanished in the third as Calico Rock's defensive change caused Sacred Heart to turn the ball over in all manners, turnovers which the Lady Pirates cashed into valuable points.
The Lady Rebels' lone hoop of the third came at the 1:00 mark on a 3-pointer by Crystal Wilson.
With the Lady Rebels in a 38-29 hole after three, the Lady Pirates didn't let up until they had captured their first state championship in 35 years.
"It's been a team game offensively and defensively all year," Wright said. "They (Sacred Heart) got to the basket a lot in the first half. But our zone look, I knew that if we could squeeze the paint a little bit, not let them get any easy looks inside, and contend the outside shots, it would be good for us. And then we got better looks because we were a little more patient on offense."