By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
The Heber Springs Panthers made the plays during the final two minutes and completed the season sweep of the Ozark Hillbillies 39-36 in a 4-4A conference basketball game at the Panther Den Friday.
Gavin Vaughn, who scored a game-high 17 points, made a 3-pointer with 3:12 left to give the Panthers a 37-36 lead. Kayden McAnally’s 3-pointer had put Ozark ahead 36-34 with 4:11 remaining. Heber Springs sophomore Eli Riggs made 2-of-4 free throws during the final minute.
Landon Wright missed a 3-pointer for the Hillbillies, which would have sent the game into overtime, with two seconds to play. The win was the first against a conference team at home since defeating Subiaco Academy during the 2017-18 season.
Earlier this season, the Panthers won 38-36 in overtime at Ozark.
“The conference has been super competitive every game,” Heber Springs coach Jordan Riley said. “Ozark beat Subiaco (Academy), which then turned around and beat Dardanelle. Pottsville got its first conference win the other night. Every game matters at this point. We are in the mix for one of the two automatic berths to the regional tournament.”
Heber Springs (3-3 in conference, 12-7 overall) currently is in fourth place, one half game behind Subiaco Academy (4-3 in conference, 10-6 overall) and one game ahead of Clarksville (3-4 in conference, 8-10 overall). Dardanelle (5-1 in conference, 12-5 overall) and Morrilton (5-1 in conference, 12-6 overall) are tied for the conference lead.
The top four teams during the regular season will earn first-round byes for the conference tournament. The regular-season champion and runner-up automatically will qualify for the regional tournament.
The 12 wins is the most by the program in a single season since it won that many games during the 2015-16 season.
“We missed two free throws late, but Eli came through by making two and gave us the 3-point lead,” Riley said. “We did a good job of contesting shots. We came up with enough stops at the end of the game to win.”
Vaughan made five of Heber Springs’ seven 3-pointers. Ozark had six 3-pointers, led by McAnally and Tanner Bailie. The Hillbillies converted 9-of-12 attempts at the free-throw line, while the Panthers made 4-of-7.
“Gavin made big shots,” Riley said. “Ladd (Choate) hit two big 3-pointers. Parker (Brown) battled around the rim. It was a group effort. We are at our best when we are balanced on offense.”
Heber Springs broke a 5-5 tie by going on an 7-3 scoring run and led 12-8 going into the second quarter. The lead changed six times for the remainder of the first half. Vaughn’s jumper tied the game at 22-22 going into the dressing room at halftime.
The Panthers pulled ahead 30-26 midway through the third quarter. Masingale and Kyle Archer each made two free throws as the game was tied at 30-30 going into the fourth quarter.
Riley said the win will give the team momentum for the start of the second half of the conference season.
“We need to keep working hard and getting better,” Riley said. “Ozark’s slow pace didn’t surprise us. They have been trying to play a different way in recent games to take advantage of their strength. They were playing to get a good shot. It was a battle every possession. We made enough shots to win.”
Riley said it was another example of the team continuing its improvement.
“This group of players have dealt with a lot of adversity for the past two years,” he said. “We are playing better and then the Covid-19 altered our schedule. These players are resilient.”
Heber Springs will play two conference road games this week. The Panthers will travel to Morrilton on Tuesday and then play at Subiaco Academy on Friday.
Ozark 8 14 8 6 – 36
Heber Springs 12 10 8 9 – 39
OZARK SCORING (36): Eli Masingale 13, Kayden McAnally 6, Tanner Bailie 6, Kyle Archer 5, Braeson Peters 3, Landon Wright 3.
HEBER SPRINGS SCORING (39): Gavin Vaughn 17, Parker Brown 8, Ladd Choate 6, Ryan Crocker 4, Eli Riggs 4.