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The Benton Panthers cruised to their third 7A/6A South conference championship in six years on Tuesday night at Benton Arena with a 66-42 rout of the Lake Hamilton Wolves. It was Bentonâ€™s 14th consecutive win as the Panthers have been cruising all season long sporting a 23-2 overall record and 12-0 in the South.
â€śItâ€™s a special night,â€ť Benton Coach Chris Nail said. â€śTheyâ€™re winners. Thatâ€™s just how they are. They win. The thing about this group is nobody ever cares about stats. Itâ€™s just a special group.â€ť
It was the Panthersâ€™ first South conference championship in two years and Tuesday nightâ€™s game fortified Nailâ€™s statement about stats as the Panthers put on a passing clinic in a game they led 61-31 going into the fourth quarter.
In the first half alone, Benton had 11 assists against just one turnover as the Panthers took advantage of their superior size from the get-go as senior 6-9 post man Graham Gardner, who led the team with 15 points, opened the gameâ€™s scoring with a layup. Lake Hamilton (8-16, 1-10 South) would hit a 3-pointer on its next possession, but Panther senior Quin Allen got an offensive rebound and put back to put Benton up 4-3 with 5:56 left in the first and the Panthers would never trail again.
Allenâ€™s bucket started a 9-0 run and was followed by senior Bryan Torresâ€™ 3-pointer assisted by senior guard Rickey Gipson, and the run was capped by junior Josh Bowlingâ€™s layup with 3:26 left and the Panthers up 13-3. The Wolves would hit four 3-pointers in the first quarter, including one at the buzzer, to stay within five points going into the second, 20-15.
After an Allen layup assisted by Torres, the Wolves scored on a 3-footer to make it 22-17 Benton lead, but then the rout was on. Over the next 4:41, the Panthers went on a 19-0 run started by junior Blake Bowlinâ€™s 10-foot jumper and capped on Allenâ€™s steal and dunk to put Benton up 41-17 with 2:10 left in the half. The Panthers would lead 44-23 at the half.
â€śJust clean,â€ť Nail said of the Panthersâ€™ play. â€śAfter the first quarter, we really played good defense. The way you win championships is pretty simple â€“ you have really good players.â€ť
With Lake Hamilton in a weak zone to start the second half, Torres saw he was wide open and nailed a three at the top of the key to start a 15-4 run in which Bowling scored eight points and capped it with a layup assisted by Gipson for a 59-27 lead with 2:30 left in the third. With a 30-point lead to start the fourth, all the Panther regulars were on the bench with the clock rolling without stopping due to the sportsmanship rule.
â€śAs happy as we are about winning the conference championship, we donâ€™t want to back in into the tournament, so we want to finish strong,â€ť Nail said. â€śI told the kids to take 24 hours to feel good, but [today] at 1:30 [for practice], weâ€™re going to have to move on to El Dorado. But it is nice to wrap it up.â€ť
After Gardnerâ€™s 15 points, Bowling followed with 14 points, eight rebounds, three steals and two assists. Torres had 11 points (3 of 5 3-pointers) and five assists, Allen had eight points and nine rebounds, and Bowlin had nine points. Gipson had just two points, but dished out four assists.
The Panthersâ€™ size helped Benton outrebound Lake Hamilton 28 to 13 as Benton shot 24 of 48 (50 percent) from the field, while the Wolves were 15 of 35 (43 percent). Benton was 14 of 18 from the foul line to Lake Hamiltonâ€™s 4 of 9. The Panthers finished with 14 assists and just six turnovers, while forcing 12 from the Wolves.
â€śIâ€™ve done this for 16 years and have won my share of conference championships, but this has probably been the most fun,â€ť Nail said of this yearâ€™s Panther squad. â€śIf you look at it and really examine it, the JV is undefeated this year, the varsity is 23-2, it doesnâ€™t get much better than that. The JV crew is such a big part of varsity because they work so hard in practice every day. We have great seniors. Not only are they good players, but theyâ€™re great people.
â€śThen we have our juniors. We have upperclassmen playing and guys that you can see it really means something to. This is my sixth year here and my third conference championship. It means something to the kids that play and that makes it fun.â€ť
The Panthers have two conference games remaining with their next coming at El Dorado to face the Wildcats on Friday. Benton beat El Dorado 59-55 at home in its previous meeting this season.