Panthers finish conference play unbeaten

BENTON — For the first time in school history, the Benton Panthers finished the regular season undefeated in the 7A-6A South Conference as they defeated the Pine Bluff Zebras 78-69 Tuesday night at the Benton Arena.

“I thought we had control the whole way,” Benton (25-2, 13-0 in 7A/6A-South) head coach Chris Nail said. “Pine Bluff wanted to play a real fast tempo and they wanted to stay in press.

“So basically it was a game of transition.”

In the third quarter, Pine Bluff (13-10, 9-5) got off to a fast start with baskets from senior Rickey Clements and Darrian Kee to get the deficit to 39-27.

But six points from Benton senior Graham Gardner and five points from Josh Bowling increased Benton’s lead to 50-29 with 2:58 in the third quarter.

“We gave up some easy lay-ups and we didn’t rotate properly,” Pine Bluff head coach Carl Smith said. “We made another run to try to get back in it again, but these young guys don’t know the rotation like they should.”

Pine Bluff led 6-3 in the first quarter before Benton went on 11-0 run to lead 14-6 with 2:58 left in the first.

“In the first half, we got beat on the glass and got beat on the loose balls and out hustled,” Smith said. “In the second half, we came out and kind of even the playing field.

“We brought just as much heat as they did. It just didn’t go our way.”

As a team, Pine Bluff was 29 of 66 from the floor (44 percent) and made just nine three-pointers. They grabbed 28 rebounds and turned it over six times.

Four Benton players scored in the double digits with Bowling leading the Panthers with 26 points. Gardner scored 14 and senior Bryan Torres scored 12. Rickey Gipson contributed with 10 points.

“We got guys that really share the ball well together, and that was a big key,” Nail said. “It is a very deserving group.”

For Pine Bluff, Clements led with 26 points. Senior Tyrone Payne had 15 points and Kee had 18.

It is undetermined what seed Pine Bluff will be awarded for the state tournament. If El Dorado lost to Bryant tonight, then the Zebras will be the three seed. El Dorado will be awarded three seed if it defeated Bryant because it owns the tiebreaker over Pine Bluff.