By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
One of the most successful basketball seasons for the Heber Springs Panthers in recent years came to a disappointing end on Saturday.
Ozark (7-18), which lost twice to the Panthers during the regular season, led from start to finish in a 38-20 win at the Panther Den in the play-in game for the 4-4A Conference tournament.
The Panthers (13-13) had the program’s best season record since the 2013-14 campaign when they finished at 18-9.
Heber Springs also showed more signs of progress by winning a tournament title (Mount Vernon-Enola Holiday Tournament) and four conference games. The Panthers had one conference win during the previous two seasons.
“I’m proud how the players brought into what I wanted them to do from the beginning of the year to the end,” Heber Springs first-year head coach Jordan Riley said. “We improved in a lot of areas. This was not how we wanted to end the season, but we did avoid a losing record. Before the season, most people didn’t feel we could do that”
Riley had been the former head girls coach at Southside Batesville for two years and rebuilt the program into a contender before taking over the Heber Springs program. Southside was 25-1 this season and won the 3-4A Conference championship going into postseason play. Riley never hesitated when the opportunity came to coach at Heber Springs.
“A lot of coaches thought I was crazy to leave a good team at Southside and come to Heber Springs,” he said. “I believe Heber Springs is where I’m suppose to be.”
At Saturday’s game, Braeson Peters, who made three 3-pointers, led Ozark with 13 points. Landon Wright, who connected twice on 3-point shots, scored eight points. Kyle Archer, who made one 3-pointer, had seven points. Jace Richard also had a 3-pointer.
“Ozark had players who made big shots,” Riley said. “Peters didn’t score in the first two games against us and made three 3-pointers. Our plan was to make players other than Wright and (Kayden) McAnally beat us. We did a good job guarding those two players (Wright and McAnally), but other players were making shots. Even as well as Ozark shot, we still held them to 38 points. We felt if we did that, we would have had a chance to win.”
Heber Springs struggled most of the game on offense and held to six field goals. The Panthers played catchup throughout the game and scored four points during the first half. Ryan Crocker, who made the team’s only 3-pointer, led with nine points.
“Ozark deserves a lot of credit for the way it played defense,” Riley said. “The 2-3 zone made it tough on us. We couldn’t dribble and create good shots against the zone. It was one of our worst shooting games of the year. Offensively, it was a tough game.”
Ozark’s Eli Masingale started the game with a field goal, followed by a 3-pointer by Wright for a 5-0 lead. Parker Brown scored the only points of the first quarter for the Panthers on an inside move. The Hillbillies scored the next eight points and took a 13-2 lead into the second quarter.
Ozark increased its lead on 3-pointers by Archer and Richard. Crocker stopped the surge by hitting a jumper as Heber Springs trailed, 19-5. Peters mad two free throws, giving the Hillbillies a 21-4 halftime lead.
Gavin Vaughn sank two free throws and a field goal by Crocket gave the Panthers a bit of life early during the third quarter. Ozark finished on a 7-1 scoring run and led 28-9 going into the fourth quarter.
“The loss hurt against a team we had defeated twice,” Riley said. “I felt we were going to win the game and move on in postseason.”
Despite the season-ending loss, Riley said the program made progress, and he hopes to keep everything going next season.
“I believe the guys will continue to work and keep improving,” he said. “We won one tournament during our best stretch of games. I thought that was going to give us momentum coming out of the Christmas break. We were unable to carry it forward.”
Riley said players will realize the good points from the season in the near future before turning their focus to next season.
“Coaches must make sure the players keep improving in the right areas and do what is best to move forward,” he said. “We will miss Ryan and Zach (Thomas). Zach came off the bench and provided leadership needed for the younger players. We have five of the top seven players coming back, plus younger players who are coming.”
Ozark 13 8 7 10 -38
Heber Springs 2 2 5 11 -20
OZARK SCORING (38): Braeson Peters 13, Landon Wright 8, Kyle Archer 7, Eli Masingale 4, Kayden McAnally 3, Jace Richard 3.
HEBER SPRING SCORING (20): Ryan Crocker 9, Ladd Choate 4, Zach Thomas 3, Gavin Vaughn 2, Parker Brown 2.