Pine Bluff had a couple of opportunities to knock off conference leader Benton, but fell short as the Panthers remain undefeated in the 7A/6A-South Conference by winning 56-46 at McFadden Gymnasium on Friday night.
Trailing 52-43 with just under 2 minutes left in the game, Pine Bluff (8-7, 4-2) had chances to trim Benton’s lead even further after the Panthers missed the front end of two free throw opportunities.
Darrian Kee hit a three-pointer to cut Benton’s lead to 52-46 but the Panthers (18-2, 7-0) made four of seven of their final free throws to secure the win.
“I think their size distracted us a little bit from what we really wanted to do,” Pine Bluff coach Carl Smith said. “We just don’t have the size to match and our rebounding was killing us.
“We didn’t rebound well and it was our downfall tonight.”
Pine Bluff jumped out to an early 8-2 lead in the first quarter. Kee got the Zebras on the scoreboard with an easy bucket with 7:35 left. Tyrone Payne followed with a pair of baskets and Rickey Clements stole a pass and made an easy layup for a six-point lead.
Benton answered with a 10-0 run to end the first quarter, including a pair of buckets from senior Rickey Gipson. The Panthers led 12-8 heading into the second quarter.
“If you take out the first 3 minutes of the first quarter and the first 3 minutes of the third quarter, I thought we had complete control of the game,” Benton head coach Chris Nail said. “Gipson played real well for us tonight and the (Josh) Bowling kid, he always plays well.”
Gipson finished with 15 points and Bowling contributed with 16 points for the Panthers. Kee had 12 points for the Zebras.
Pine Bluff looked out of sync for most of the game, except late in the third quarter.
Following a timeout by the Zebras, Kee hit a three-pointer and Marcus Thomas quickly followed with a three-pointer from the left corner to cut the score to 36-23 with less than 3 minutes left in the quarter.
After being fouled on a missed three-point attempt, Clements made all three free throws to cut the deficit to 38-26 with about a minute left in the third.
He later grabbed an offensive rebound and a putback to get the score within 10.
“I don’t know if they kept us out of what we wanted to do,” Smith said. “Or we kept ourselves out.
“We took some quick shots. It seemed like we were trying to win it there in the first half.
“I tried to settle them down, but [Benton] played a good half-court defense.”
According to Jim Gardner, who volunteers part-time for the Benton radio station KEWI-90 and for the Saline Courier, this was the first time the Panthers have beaten the Zebras at Pine Bluff in 18 years.
“It feels great,” Nail said. “We’ve got a senior-junior ball club and they’ve been through all this before.
“We should have won here last year but we got beat.
“It just helps to have that experience.”
Pine Bluff will host Texarkana (11-11, 3-4) on Tuesday.