By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
MOUNT VERNON – The Heber Springs Panthers finished 2021 strong and built momentum going into 2022.
Heber Springs held the Concord Pirates to four points during the third quarter and pulled away for a 54-36 win and won the Mount Vernon-Enola Holiday Basketball Tournament championship Thursday.
The Panthers (10-5 overall, 1-1 in Conference 4-4A) trailed 9-8 after the first quarter before they rallied for a 19-17 halftime lead and increased it to 34-21 by the end of the third quarter.
Heber Springs reached the 10-win plateau for the first time since the 2015-16 season and won a tournament championship for the first time in more than a decade.
Concord fell to 12-7 on the season.
“They are starting to believe in themselves,” Panther coach Jordan Riley said. “It’s not anything special I’m doing. The players are the reason for the success. They just needed someone who believed in them. I’m proud of their effort, and everything is coming together.”
Riley said getting the 10th win was important.
“It was a milestone that the team wanted to achieve,” he said. “We just need to keep moving forward.”
Ryan Crocker, who finished with 14 points, led the third-quarter charge by scoring six of Heber Springs’ 15 points. Parker Brown led the Panthers with 15 points.
“We did a better job of taking away the things that Concord was doing against our defense during the first half,” said Riley when asked about the second half. “Ryan hit some big shots and gave us separation. Concord has a good team and did a good job attacking our zone defense during the first half. In the second half, we came away with enough rebounds and didn’t give them many second chances.”
The lead changed back and forth during the first quarter. Heber Springs led 8-4 until Concord finished by scoring five unanswered points. Gage Morgan scored on an inside move, and Eli Heigle hit a 3-pointer, giving the Pirates a 9-8 lead going into the second quarter.
The trend continued through the remainder of the first half. Crocker connected on a jumper late in the second quarter as Heber Springs led 19-17 at halftime.
The Panthers outscored the Pirates 35-19 during the second half.
“We didn’t make many shots during the second half,” Concord coach Keith Cornett, who led Heber Springs to the state semifinals during the early 2000s. “Heber should be credited for playing a good 2-3 zone defense. We didn’t take advantage of getting the ball into the post and to players in the corners during the second half. They made shots in the second half, and we didn’t.”
Heber Springs built a 16-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Crocker and point guard Gavin Vaughn (who was selected the tournament’s MVP) went to the bench with four personal fouls. Concord pulled to within seven points before the Panthers finished with a flurry.
“I’m proud of the younger guys who took good care of the ball against Concord’s full-court press and kept the lead,” Riley said. “Once Ryan and Gavin went back into the game, we pulled away. It was a good way to wrap up our non-conference schedule.”
Cornett said the difference in the game came from how Heber Springs played defense during the second half.
“We played okay on defense, but struggle on offense throughout the game,” he said. “We showed fight in the fourth quarter when we reduced Heber’s lead.”
The Panthers will host Morrilton (7-6 overall, 0-1 in Conference 4-4A), led by Razorback signee Joseph Pinion, on Tuesday.
“Morrilton is going to be a tough game, just like the other conference games,” Riley said. “If we can keep playing hard, it will give us a chance for a win every night. Pinion is the best player in the conference.”
Riley said Tuesday’s game will be a challenge for his team.
“We are starting to look like a good basketball team,” he said. “We will do our best to put the guys in the right positions for a chance to win the game.”
Concord 9 8 4 15 -36
Heber Springs 8 11 15 20 -54
CONCORD SCORING (36): Eli Tate 12, Eli Heigle 12, Gage Morgan 9, Dylan Byrd 3.
HEBER SPRINGS SORING (54): Parker Brown 15, Ryan Crocker 14, Gavin Vaughn 9, Eli Riggs 5, J.T. Spears 4, Ladd Choate 3, Adam Winchester 3, Zach Thomas 1.