CHARLESTON — If Fordyce and Drew Central weren’t enough of a test for unbeaten McGehee this season, Harding Academy was.
The defending 3A state champion raced to an 18-5 first-quarter lead, but McGehee stepped up its defense and found its shooting touch to escape the first round of this year’s 3A boys basketball playoffs at Charleston High School with a 61-53 win Thursday night.
The Owls (21-0) will take on Friday night’s Melbourne-Cedarville winner in the quarterfinals at 2:30 p.m. Monday.
“They’re a disciplined team,” Owls coach Jerome Pace said of Harding Academy. “You have to get out and make them do something they don’t want to do.”
Harding Academy, the 2-3A Conference and District champion seeded fourth out of Region 2, finished 20-10 after a three-game losing streak.
“We had a good, solid group, and I was very proud of their effort they put forth,” said Wildcats coach Brad Francis, a former Harding University head women’s coach. “As I told them in the locker room, ‘You guys gave me everything you had, did everything I asked you to do,’ and as a coach, you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Tracey Lawson had a game-high 23 points to lead the Owls, who were down 20-5 early in the second quarter for their largest deficit of the season. Kieanis Henry scored 11 of his 16 points in the pivotal period as the Owls pulled to within 32-28 at intermission.
“We just got everybody together and told them we’re still in this game,” said Henry, a junior point guard. “We still had a whole other half of basketball to play. I told them to step up. I had to step up. Everybody’s got to play their roles. We came out on top.”
McGehee got back into the game switching from a zone that gave up five three-point baskets in the first 8 minutes to man-to-man and scored off turnovers as Henry — who had three treys in the second frame — found his shooting touch.
“We turned it up on defense and got patient on offense, got a few breaks, and that was the difference in the ballgame,” Pace said.
Harding Academy took a 9-1 lead, scoring all its points on three-pointers, before McGehee made its first field goal.
“I think it was the setting of the arena,” Pace said. “(My players) were complaining they couldn’t hear the ball bounce because they were complaining the ball didn’t have any air in it. It’s a different environment, and adjusting to that environment makes a difference.”
The Owls were within 36-35 after Lawson finished a basket as he was fouled, but the Wildcats pushed the lead up to 42-37 after back-to-back threes. The Wildcats went 9 for 16 from three-point range, including 5 for 7 from J. Paul Fullerton (18 points).
Lawson took charge for the Owls during the third and kept the team within striking distance with a pair of scores off the dribble. Henry scored off a drive at the 3:09 mark of the period to put McGehee ahead for the first time, 43-42, and after a back-and-forth sequence, the Owls took a 49-46 lead into the final period.
The Wildcats were missing Fullerton’s services for much of the fourth quarter after he picked up his fourth foul, taking away a much-needed offensive threat.
“You never know how that would have affected the game, but certainly he was on tonight and certainly a big part of getting us that lead,” Francis said.
Harding Academy got within no closer than 52-51 with 2:05 left. Lawson then made a free throw and made a layup after a loose-ball scramble to give McGehee separation. The Owls hit 6 of 8 free throws in the final 50 seconds to put the game away.
“I learned as a team we can’t come out sluggish,” Henry said. “We have to be on our A-game, always.”
Kohl Blickenstaff had 12 points and Hayden Mathews totaled 11 points and 11 rebounds for the Wildcats.
Harding Academy 44, Fordyce 18
CHARLESTON — Fordyce coach Ronald Smead didn’t let Harding Academy’s fourth seed from Region 2 fool him.
“We knew Harding Academy was really good,” he said. “They’re not your typical fourth seed by no means. In fact, they’re probably a one (seed).
“They got upset in their regional. I knew they would get it back going, and we just happened to be the team in their way. All credit goes to them.”
The Lady Bugs, who swept the championships in the 8-3A Conference and District and Region 4, were cold from the field for most of the game and did not have an answer for the Lady Wildcats, who led 23-6 at halftime en route to the victory.
Fordyce (25-8) made only two field goals in the first half and went 12 minutes without another, finally breaking the drought at the 2:15 mark of the third quarter. But Harding Academy (23-8) took a 40-9 lead into the fourth quarter, enacting a running clock the rest of the way.
“We had nerves, but that’s supposed to go away after the first couple of minutes,” Smead said. “We got stationary some on our offense. We weren’t wanting to move. They were putting so much pressure on us, we kind of laid back and hoped they wouldn’t. They’re not going to do that. We knew they wouldn’t.”
Lacie Hulse had eight points to lead Fordyce. Shelby Gowen and Haley Smith each scored 11 points to lead Harding Academy.
Smead said the Lady Bugs will have to get used to the state tournament atmosphere to have success in the future.
“If we played (Harding Academy) tomorrow, I think it would be a little different,” he said. “Hats off to all of them. I give them credit. We didn’t execute like we should have.”