JONESBORO – Making the 6A State Tournament semifinals their second consecutive year against the Jonesboro Golden Hurricane, the result was almost exactly the same as last season as the Benton Panthers fell 63-53 on Tuesday afternoon at Jonesboro High School. The Hurricane defeated Benton last year 61-51 in the semis at Greenwood.
“They had depth,” Benton Coach Dwaine Fishburn said of Jonesboro. “I could see that at the end. We got into some early foul trouble. Our game plan, early on, was working really well.”
The loss ended a season which ranked right up there with last year’s 27-3 record-setting team which went undefeated in the 7A/6A South Conference. This season’s team won the its conference at 12-2, sported the second-best overall Benton High School record at 23-7 and won three tournaments after finishing runner-up out of 112 teams in a Texas tournament this past summer.
“If somebody would have told me at the beginning of the year, after losing five great seniors last year,” Fishburn started, “you guys would finish 23-7, win a conference championship and three tournaments, I would say somebody is lying to me. I thought our kids had a tremendous year. We had an elite year.”
It was a back-and-forth game to start as senior Blake Bowlin broke a 5-5 tie with a 7-foot jumper with 5:21 left in the first. The Hurricane, which will play the Parkview Patriots in the finals later this week, went on a 6-0 run before senior Josh Bowling laid it in with the assist coming from senior Tarek Beaugard, and sophomore Cason Maertens nailed a 3-pointer for a 12-11 Benton lead with 49 seconds left in the first. Jonesboro would lead 13-12 after one.
Benton sophomore Clay Anderson got an offensive rebound and put back to begin the second, but the Hurricane countered with 7-0 run capped by an offensive rebound and lay up by Kahron Ross. Down 22-16 with 2:30 to play in the half, Bowling found Maertens for his second three of the game, and Anderson, who had a game-high 10 rebounds, had another offensive rebound and put back to get Benton within one, 22-21, with 1:38 left. With Benton own 24-21 with the ball and looking for the last shot, Ross would strip the ball and put it in for a 26-21 Hurricane half-time lead and a lack of momentum for the Panthers.
“We had a turnover at the end of the half and that’s a credit to Jonesboro,” Fishburn said. “They’re so fast. Every time we missed an assignment, offensively screening, they took advantage of it.”
Bowling laid it in to begin the second half and get Benton within three points, but Jonesboro went on a 9-0 run to take a 35-23 lead with 3:09 left. But the Panthers weren’t going anywhere as they fought back to make it 39-33 at the end of three after a Bowling 17-footer with three seconds left.
Bowling was fouled on a made layup to get to 39-35 beginning the fourth, but missed the free throw. Jarma Perkins hit a three for the Hurricane the next possession before Bowling laid it in again for a 42-37 Panther deficit, but Benton turnovers helped Jonesboro to a 12-2 run to make it 53-39 with 2:35 left.
The Panthers didn’t have an excessive amount of turnovers, 14, but many came at inopportune times, and the Hurricane had just six turnovers for the game.
“Sometimes it’s not how many turnovers you have, but it’s when you turn it over,” Fishburn said. “If you turn it over at crucial times, when you can cut it to one point, or at the end of the quarter, [and] Jonesboro capitalized on that.”
Benton cut it to 60-53 with 24.7 seconds left on yet another Anderson offensive rebound and layup, but the game was all but over.
“We had our chances,” Fishburn said. “Jonesboro is deeper and I think their kids are more experienced than our kids. I thought our defensive game plan was wonderful. We got into foul trouble. We held their best scorer (Ross) to just six baskets. The rest were free throws. And two of them were on my technical.”
Fishburn was referring to a technical he received when it was 53-45 with 1:17 left after a Hurricane player obviously stepped out of bounds.
“The gentleman did step out, and not just a little,” Fishburn said. “His foot nearly kicked my foot out of bounds. When there are three officials, they have to catch things like that.
“We battled uphill all game long and I’m really proud of our kids for doing that. We just had a tremendous year.”
Ross had a game-high 24 points on 11 of 12 from the free-throw line, and added eight rebounds. Marquise Pointer had 20 points, 16 coming in the second half on 6 of 6 from the field.
For Benton, Bowling had 21 points and six rebounds, Anderson had 15 points for his double-double, Maertens had 10 points, four rebounds and three assists, and Bowlin had five points and six rebounds.
“I’m going to really miss our seniors, Fishburn said. “Besides being good ball players, they’re great kids, they have great character. They represented themselves, they represented their families and they represented Benton High School. We gave our community, our parents, our school, something to be very very be proud of. The wins aside, winning means very little unless you do it the right way and our kids did it the right way all year long.”