Lady Cardinals' junior Makenna Vanzant had struggled with perimeter shooting to open games of late but used a shooter's roll to get her first 3-pointer to fall through the net. She went on to sink 6 of 7 attempts from beyond the arc and added a traditional three-point play to lead all scorers with 21 points. But when we're shooting like that, that makes us dangerous.
It was at 11 a. It was the classic story of the fiery new upstart against the established power. Malvern was playing in its first state championship game in school history, while their opponent, the Prairie Grove Lady Tigers, were in the game for the third time in the last four years.
Since making it to the state semifinal game a year ago, the Lady Leopards were considered to be one of the favorites coming into this season, mostly because they returned everyone that played significant playing time with the exception of Ayshia Walsh. Even with the loss still fresh on their minds, many on the team were making bold predictions, many were saying that nothing was going to stop them from winning a state title this year.
By the time they rolled into Barton Coliseum in Little Rock on that fateful Saturday morning, anyone who knew the team felt great about their chances. Some of the people dogging the Lady Leopards had either never seen them play or were fans of a team that Malvern decimated this season and that is a long list.
There were a ton of misconceptions thrown out about the team, such as their inability to shoot the ball from the perimeter or being nothing more than an overly athletic team.
The players on the team admitted they had seen the negativity and that it was fueling their desire to win the state championship. Shortly before 11 a. The teams began lining up to run onto the court for pregame drills.
One nice touch to this game was the addition of the student sections behind the basket on both sides of the court. While the stadium itself was rocking, the respective student sections could be heard above all else.
The buzzer finally sounded to let the teams know that the warm-up period was over and that the game was just moments from starting.
During the introductions of the starting lineups, you could tell that the Lady Leopards had more energy and enthusiasm, as each player sprung off the bench high-fiving her teammates before sprinting to shake the hand of the opposing coach.
At last, after a year of waiting and planning, the tip-off of the state championship game was upon us and Malvern was ready to write history. Standing in their way was a team very familiar with this scenario, with a star player that was playing in her third championship game.
Senior Shakara Penix wasted little time in getting Malvern on the scoreboard by hitting a three-pointer to give the Lady Leopards an early lead.
Unfortunately, that would be the last time Malvern would score for nearly five minutes. Prairie Grove built a modest lead as it seemed some of the Lady Leopards were still trying to keep their nerves in check. Akasha Westbrook broke the scoring drought with left in the first quarter to pull Malvern within For some reason, the Prairie Grove student section decided to pick on Penix for the majority of the game.
But the Lady Tigers were willing to give up the three-pointer to Penix and with left in the first quarter she made them pay with another long-range bomb to put the Lady Leopards up Malvern would get the ball back and attempted another three-pointer at the buzzer, but it was off the mark, leaving the Lady Leopard lead at Huell would get Malvern rolling in the second quarter with a two-pointer with remaining in the half.
A few seconds later, Prairie Grove would hit one of two free throws to cut the deficit to , but a couple of free throws by Huell gave Malvern its largest lead of the ball game at and capped off a run.
Once again the Lady Leopards would go through a scoring drought. Malvern was held scoreless for the last of the first half. As the two teams headed into the locker room, the Lady Leopards were clinging to a lead.
Penix hit the second of two free throws to give the Lady Leopards a lead, but Prairie Grove erased the lead just 14 seconds later on a layup to tie the game at On Saturday it happened again, only this time it was Westbrook picking up the fouls.
She picked up her third and fourth fouls and the validity of some of those calls could be questioned within a minute of each other and was forced to sit with left in the third quarter.
Her fourth foul came against the six-footer from Prairie Grove on a made lay up.
The free throw put the Lady Tigers up Less than a minute later, Prairie Grove had made another lay up and the Lady Leopards found themselves down Huell answered back with a three-pointer with left the first Malvern field goal in more than 11 minutes in the quarter to cut into the lead, but back-to-back lay ups by the Lady Tigers gave Prairie Grove its largest lead of the game at six with remaining in the third quarter.
Raven Baker finally got in the score book with a three pointer to cut that lead in half with to go in the third, followed by a two-pointer by Penix with left to trim the Malvern deficit to heading into the final eight minutes of the year.
The Lady Tigers started the fourth quarter holding the ball and for nearly a minute it looked like they were content to just hold the ball near mid-court for the entire quarter. Malvern applied some pressure, but Prairie Grove moved the ball around and hit a three-pointer, seemingly nullifying the momentum the Lady Leopards had been building.
Trailing , Malvern wasted little time getting their offense going again. The Prairie Grove defense, still listening to their student section, played several feet away from Penix. She promptly made them pay for the slight by hitting a big three-pointer to pull Malvern back within one at with left in the game.
Malvern would get the ball back, and again they would find Penix on the wing for another three-pointer that gave the Lady Leopards a lead with to go in the game. Malvern was back in the lead and this game was destined to go down to the wire.
Prairie Grove would find a way to get back to the free throw line again with remaining and hit both free throws to tie the game at After a failed Malvern possession, the Lady Tigers had the ball with the score tied, looking to drain a little clock, but Westbrook would have none of it.
She stepped in front of a pass and had a wide open fast break lay up. She would later say that she thought about trying to dunk the ball she along with Huell and Baker can jump high enough for that , but changed her mind at the last second.
Her steal and lay up gave Malvern a lead with left in the game, and that would be one of the last things Westbrook would do in the state championship.
A phantom foul just 27 seconds later sent her to the bench with her fifth foul, and the Lady Leopards would have to play the final four-and-a-half minutes without one of their best defenders and inside threats. With left, Prairie Grove took the lead again, breaking an eight-and-a-half minute drought where they did not make a field goal.
Just saying the last minute of this game was nerve-wracking does not do it justice. The final moments of this game were one of the most intense you will ever see in any game. Malvern, trailing by one point, was inbounding it from the far sideline on their end of the court.
After being unable to find anyone inside to throw it to, they went to their outlet, Baker, in the back court. Baker managed to snag the ball right as the Prairie Grove defender went to the floor to grab it. Baker immediately took advantage of the five-on-four situation by driving the length of the floor.
Her shot in the lane with left in the game gave Malvern a lead, but when Prairie Grove brought the ball up the court, you would have thought they had the lead. For 30 seconds they held the ball, letting time tick away.
They finally made a move to the inside with less than 20 seconds on the clock, but Malvern fouled their six-footer and best free throw shooter with 17 seconds left on the clock.
Enter Tiffany Murdock. Murdock had been held scoreless for the entire game, but in the last few seconds you would have thought she was the leading scorer in the way she attacked the basket. Starting at the top of the key, she drove to the basket with determination and hit a strongly-contested basket amongst four Prairie Grove defenders with 3.
After a time out, Prairie Grove attempted a baseball pass to get the ball down the court to get a good look at the basket. Evidently no one told them that was not a good idea against a team like Malvern as Huell leapt in front of the intended recipient to steal the pass.
After the steal, the last few seconds clicked off the clock and the Malvern bench erupted in celebration. Akasha Westbrook was named the Most Valuable Player and had to be pointed in the right direction to accept her trophy.
In the championship game, senior Shakara Penix led all scorers with 15 points including four three-pointers in 13 attempts.