Even when Watson Chapel was down to its final opportunity to make the 5A state boys basketball tournament, the Wildcats never doubted themselves, second-year coach Matt Busch said.
“Amidst the broken hands and random losses, I was just really proud of the kids,” Busch said. “They never hung their heads and never doubted themselves.
“The kids believed we would make it.”
How they got into a do-or-die situation was pretty dramatic.
The Wildcats (13-12, 8-6 in 5A-South) overcame a slow start to conference play and strung together a four-game winning streak with three games remaining. Then came a little trouble.
They stumbled badly at home Feb. 15 with a loss to Hope, a team that went on to finish seventh in the eight-team conference.
“It was senior night, we started off slowly, and we didn’t recover the way we wanted to,” Busch said.
A trip to Magnolia three days later was next for Watson Chapel with a chance to clinch the third seed. The Wildcats lost 40-38 in double overtime.
That forced them to win at Hot Springs on Thursday to go to state. That was no problem.
Jalen Courtney scored 18 points and Demetrius Dukes added a career-high 17 in a 65-43 victory, ending the Trojans’ season under first-year coach and former Watson Chapel assistant Rodney Echols.
“There was no need for motivational speeches,” Busch said. “We were playing against a guy who had been with the guys for five years. … I thought we really peaked at the right time.”
Now Watson Chapel’s season continues with hometown advantage on their side. The school is hosting the 5A playoffs at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
“I think it’s a tremendous help,” Busch said of getting to stay in Pine Bluff. “I saw Dollarway play last year (when the Convention Center hosted the 4A tournament), and they fed off the crowd. The kids are excited about this opportunity.”
Watson Chapel leads off the boys tournament by taking on 5A-East champion Beebe at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. That will be followed by a girls game between 5A-South champion Watson Chapel and Nettleton at 4 p.m.
This will mark the second straight year Beebe and Watson Chapel have met in the boys’ first round. Beebe won 54-49 last year, and the Wildcats now have a shot at payback.
If you want to look at it that way.
“I wouldn’t say payback,” Busch said. “It’s a new opportunity with a different group of kids. It would be nice to win the game regardless of who it is.”
Busch has gone through this season with only one returning starter in junior guard Tevin Brown, who along with junior forward Ben Marcus averages 10 points per game apiece.
The Wildcats have been more consistent on the defensive end, Busch said, with senior forward SanAntonio Cole holding some of the conference opponents’ leading scorers to single digits and Marcus’ and Dukes’ efforts in the post. Senior Charles Owens also is back in action for the Wildcats after suffering a broken right hand during the winning streak.
Watson Chapel has not taken a day off of practice in preparation for Beebe since the win at Hot Springs. Busch has been excited about his team’s commitment to even take their weekend days to practice for their big opportunity in their hometown.
“(The tournament) has definitely created a lot of buzz for our kids,” Busch said. “It takes a lot of distractions away that you can have from traveling.”