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Attack of the Wildcats

Tuckerman formulates plan, but Episcopal still prevails

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Photographs by Stephen B. Thornton

Episcopal Collegiate’s Khalen Robinson, the tournament MVP, drives to the basket between Tuckerman’s Dylan Smith (35) and Jacob Hockaday. More photos at arkansasonline.com/galleries.

HOT SPRINGS -- Tuckerman Coach Josh Bateman figured he had the right game plan in place for Saturday night's Class 3A state championship game against Episcopal Collegiate.

Bateman's strategy, after losing to Episcopal 54-48 on Feb. 25 in the finals of the Region 2 tournament, was to do dare Kamron Brasfield and Treylon Payne to beat the Bulldogs while focusing on Khalen Robinson and senior Gavin Hawkins.

It didn't turn out the way Bateman planned.

Brasfield, Payne and Robinson each scored 18 points, with Hawkins adding 7 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block, to carry the Wildcats to a 61-47 victory in front of a crowd of 2,019 at the Bank of the Ozarks Arena.

The Class 3A game was the finale of a weekend when 14 championship trophies were handed out.

"You really can't sit there and say we're gonna take this guy and this guy and this guy away," Bateman said. "You've just got to try to limit what they do."

Many of the Wildcats' opponents have used that same pick-your-poison approach, and it's a chance that teams have been willing to take. But Episcopal (28-7) has been the beneficiary more times than not.

The Wildcats took a 17-game winning streak into Saturday's game and hadn't lost to a Class 3A team all season. In fact, all seven of Episcopal's losses came to teams that reached their respective state tournaments, including four- and six-point defeats to Class 4A champion Baptist Prep and a two-point setback to Class 2A winner Earle.

"Nobody really believed in us until we went on that run after we lost to Baptist Prep," Brasfield said. "After that game, we said we weren't losing any more. We bought in to what coach had been saying about making that extra pass, and to win the title feels amazing."

Brasfield, a senior, and Payne and Robinson, both freshmen, combined to shoot 19 of 35 from the floor, with 16 rebounds, 6 assists and 7 steals. They committed seven turnovers, but Episcopal Coach Brandon Friedel said he is willing to live with a few mistakes considering the amount of production his guys usually churn out.

"We've talked all year about being unselfish, making that extra pass and taking what's given to you," Friedel said. "If you're open for a shot, take it. If they get out there and guard you, try to drive it past them. And if they come over and shut you down, kick it out and keep it moving."

Hawkins was the only other Episcopal player to score.

"They've got a lot of weapons, and they're hard to guard," Bateman said.

Episcopal led from the opening tip and outscored Tuckerman 6-0 at the end of the first quarter to grab a 13-4 lead. The Wildcats then used a 15-1 run, with 8 points coming from Brasfield, to build a 28-10 lead.

Tuckerman (31-11) wouldn't go away, and Friedel said his team's quick burst was key to staying in front.

The key to slowing down Tuckerman, Friedel said, is keeping guard Bomani Roberson out of the paint.

Roberson got the Bulldogs within 33-26 after his short jumper with 2:28 left in the third quarter. But a Robinson layup, followed by consecutive three-pointers pushed Episcopal's margin out to 41-26 going into the fourth quarter.

Episcopal led 50-31 after Robinson completed a three-point play with 5:21 remaining in the game, but Roberson, who finished with 21 points, scored 7 points and Tuckerman outscored Episcopal 10-2 to the deficit to 11.

Two free throws from Zane Smith drew the Bulldogs within 54-43, but a basket from Payne and two free throws from Robinson, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player, re-established control for Episcopal.

"We may not pass the eye test when we come out, but we're going to show up and compete no matter what," Bateman said. "We just came up short in this one."

Sports on 03/13/2017

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