The Sentinel-Record

LH worthy of playing for rare title

- Bob Wisener On Second Thought

Growing up in northeast Arkansas, Sean Saunders developed a love for basketball unlike most sports writers I know or have worked with.

A Jonesboro High graduate, he went from NEA to NWA (i.e, Fayettevil­le) for a college education. He is not conflicted when an Arkansas game bumps against one involving Arkansas State. He understand­s that in-state matchups stir the fans, and while under no illusion that Arkansas and Arkansas State will become Alabama vs. Auburn, he appreciate­s that the Razorbacks’ football game with the Red Wolves in 2025 must happen.

Now living out of state, Sean keeps a close eye on local teams that he once covered. We have not discussed the point but trust that Lakeside’s road win over Pine Bluff late in the basketball season surprised us both. And that the collective down year for most Garland County girls basketball teams is not rare.

It was with pleasure then that my former co-worker texted me Saturday after the Class 5A boys quarterfin­als at Pine Bluff Convention Center, where he spent many days in the service of the Pine Bluff Commercial.

The prospect of an all-Garland County game between Hot Springs and Lake Hamilton whetted his attention. That dream matchup did not unfold — no one should complain because Lake Hamilton and Pine Bluff is next — but it made for good conversati­on.

Lake Hamilton, beset by overnight sickness to guard Zac Pennington and late foul trouble, held off Marion 59-56 in what may be considered a mild upset, the Patriots with more red-carpet experience. That put the Wolves in the semifinals for the third time in five years, and a 65-58 decision over Harrison sent them to the state finals at 7:45 p.m. Thursday.

Waiting on Lake Hamilton is a 13-time state champion, though the Zebras have gone without one since 2015. People were watching “Tom Jones” at the movies and the Beatles were looming off American shores when Lake Hamilton, in 1963, won its only state crown in boys hoops.

Hot Springs, which closed with a rush for coach Antoni Lasker, lost 58-56 to Harrison. Nasir Hannah hitting a three at the final buzzer for the Trojans (20-9). Thus went hopes for a third meeting between Lake Hamilton and Hot Springs, the Wolves’ last defeat coming to the Trojans at home. Pine Bluff then downed Greene County Tech in the other semifinal, hopefully not causing “irreparabl­e harm” to the Eagles, which a former GCT girls coach claimed his team incurred after Hot Springs, working on backto-back titles, won in the 1998 state tourney.

Saunders texted again after the Wolves beat Harrison, noting that Lake Hamilton was returning to Bank OZK Arena for higher stakes than when it played Lakeside there in The Game, a lame slogan that didn’t last though the series has.

Lake Hamilton should be tired of reading that the 2000 Lakeside Rams are the last Garland County boys’ team to win a state basketball title, getting past the Wolves in the semifinals at Harrison before winning it all at Pine Bluff Convention Center.

Coach Scotty Pennington, like any coach whose child is a key player for the Wolves (Ty Robinson earned a Central Arkansas scholarshi­p last week, the younger Pennington headed to Southern Arkansas), must be at emotional sixes and sevens. The son of a state tournament-winning coach, Scotty might have been taxed beyond his limit if Hot Springs, where he once coached, proved his semifinal opponent.

Hot Springs lost another close game in the state tournament, though not with the

crushing finality of the 2016 Trojans’ semifinal defeat to Forrest City at Bank OZK Arena, where the 5A early rounds were played. The game between coaches Rodney Echols (since retired) and the late Dwight Lofton may be the best ever played in Garland County, ranking with the 1972 Hot Springs-Jonesboro football game at old Rix Stadium, which produced co-champions after the teams played two overtimes.

Pennington was not around then but knows about the Wolf teams that reached the finals in 1996 and ‘97 and lost in triple overtime, to host Greenwood, in the ‘98 semifinals. Hot Springs, coached by the late Alvin Corder, a star player on the Wolves’ 1963 state champion team, won titles in the even-numbered years, the first propelled by Jermaine Dobbins and the second with former Wolf player LaJuan Christon taking the final shot.

Lake Hamilton, which collected a rare victory over Magnolia in December, should have learned something in the Marion game: A prospectiv­e champion often must win a game it could easily lose, one that answers all questions about a team’s bona fides. Caddo Hills’ 1990 Class A champions, coached by Lakeside man Jerry Bridges, had one such game against defending champion Delta in the semifinals at Perryville. A Delta shot from deep range rimmed out as the buzzer sounded, making the Indians 37-0. It took a Pine Bluff team that sent all five starters to the college ranks to better Bridges’ star-crossed squad.

The Wolves, it should be clear now, check enough boxes to claim a state championsh­ip despite home-and-home losses to Pine Bluff. In the late show Thursday night at a neutral site, we shall see if that is enough or the Wolves hear the saddest of sports laments, “Wait ‘til next year.”

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