Special to The Commercial/William Harvey
Chelsea Payne (25) and 5A-South Conference champion Watson Chapel (19-6) will conclude the girls basketball regular season tonight at Hot Springs with a chance to finish 5A-South play at 14-0.
To understand how important going 14-0 in conference play is to Watson Chapel girls basketball coach Leslie Henderson, consider this:
She recalled how in 2008, the Lady Wildcats’ first state championship season, they suffered their only conference loss to Sheridan. She said it was the best thing that could have ever happened them.
“It got us refocused and we were on a roll from there,” she said.
In 2010, the Lady Wildcats dropped two conference games — and won their second state title. The next year, they finally went undefeated in the 5A-Southeast, on their way to a third state crown.
Henderson couldn’t remember how they did in conference play that season.
“See? That’s how important it is to me,” she said.
Yet, Watson Chapel (19-6, 13-0 in 5A-South) finds itself in a similar situation, needing only to win at Hot Springs tonight to finish another undefeated conference season.
The last meeting between the two teams was a classic; Watson Chapel fought double overtime to win 73-65 at home Feb. 5. Avenging that loss is important to Hot Springs (17-7, 10-3) because a win would prevent the Lady Trojans from slipping to third place in conference standings.
But an undefeated mark doesn’t matter to Henderson. Her Lady Wildcats have already reached their regular-season goals.
“That whole game doesn’t matter,” Henderson said Wednesday. “We’re already the conference champions and we’ve got the number-one seed (in next week’s 5A state tournament). I’ll be happy with the win. You want to win every game. But I could care less about going undefeated.”
Watson Chapel has cruised in conference play despite starting the season 6-6, which Henderson attributed to playing tougher teams, many of them in higher classifications.
“A lot of times, in years past, we’d play a tough nonconference schedule and people would think we’ve come together during the conference season and played a lot better,” Henderson said. “We’ve just played tougher teams.”
Hot Springs, without a doubt, has been Watson Chapel’s toughest competition since. Senior forward Chelsea Payne led with 21 points and senior center Kamera Bozeman had 20, both far surpassing their scoring averages. Bozeman is the team’s leading scorer at 12 points per game and averages six rebounds a game, while Payne registers 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds per game.
“Every single player has added to their role where they can score,” Henderson said.
Also, senior point guard Leonicia Hart gets three steals per contest.
“She keeps us together,” Henderson said.
Tonight is Watson Chapel’s opportunity to maintain a winning streak going into next week’s tournament at the Pine Bluff Convention Center. But all that the Lady Wildcats have worked for during the regular season will not be lost if the Lady Trojans get the upper hand.
“The thing is, what are you playing for?” Henderson said. “You’re already the number-one seed and conference champions. To beat Hot Springs now, they’re playing for second or third. I bet you they’ll be back for our game.”
In boys action, the season for Watson Chapel (12-12, 7-6) and Hot Springs (9-17, 7-6) comes down to tonight’s game. The winner will earn the fourth and final seed from the 5A-South into the state tournament.
Watson Chapel, which defeated Hot Springs 48-37 in Pine Bluff on Feb. 5, missed an opportunity to clinch a state berth Monday when it lost at Magnolia 40-38 in double overtime.
Tonight’s boys game will follow the 5 p.m. girls contest.