Saturday, March 9, 2013 — that is a date that many in this area will never forget, especially not the members of the 2012-2013 Malvern Lady Leopards basketball team.
It was at 11 a.m. that morning that their march toward history began its final chapter as they took the court in the championship game of the Arkansas Class 4A state tournament.
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.
Shortly after last year’s loss to Star City in the state semifinal game in Pine Bluff, I sat down with the team to talk about the season, and it was Walsh leading the charge talking up the 2013 Lady Leopards.
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.
As it turns out, the Malvern girls’ basketball team not only has players with great basketball abilities, but they are able to see into the future as well.
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.
The team still had its detractors, and in this age of the Internet and message boards, it’s hard to separate the players from the hateful messages.
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.m. on Saturday, the arena was starting to fill, with more than 3,600 in attendance.
The teams began lining up to run onto the court for pregame drills. Emotions were running high and one of the Lady Leopards’ seniors was having trouble keeping the magnitude of the moment and her emotions in check.
When it was finally Malvern’s turn to run onto the floor, the arena erupted in a chorus of cheers. Many of the players tried to keep the “business as usual” look on their face, but most had trouble containing their joy and excitement.
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 Leopards’ boys basketball team was in attendance showing their support for their classmates and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as anyone else in the arena.
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 6-0 star player that was playing in her third championship game.
Malvern’s Alivia Huell set the tone immediately by out-jumping the taller opponent to give Malvern the first possession of the 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 3-0 lead.
Unfortunately, that would be the last time Malvern would score for nearly five minutes.
Prairie Grove built a modest 6-3 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 3:04 left in the first quarter to pull Malvern within 6-5.
For some reason, the Prairie Grove student section decided to pick on Penix for the majority of the game.
Perhaps they heard too many people erroneously talking about Malvern’s lack of outside shooting, but every time Penix would catch the ball outside of the three-point line, the students would scream “shoot it!”
Maybe the Prairie Grove defenders were listening to the student section because they backed off of Penix whenever she caught the ball from that range — granted she was the fastest player on the court and anyone who tried to run out to guard her would have seen her get past them in the blink of an eye.
But the Lady Tigers were willing to give up the three-pointer to Penix and with 1:02 left in the first quarter she made them pay with another long-range bomb to put the Lady Leopards up 8-6.
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 8-6.
Huell would get Malvern rolling in the second quarter with a two-pointer with 7:17 remaining in the half.
A few seconds later, Prairie Grove would hit one of two free throws to cut the deficit to 10-7, but a couple of free throws by Huell gave Malvern its largest lead of the ball game (at 12-7) and capped off a 9-1 run.
Once again the Lady Leopards would go through a scoring drought. Malvern was held scoreless for the last 6:53 of the first half. During that time, the Lady Tigers made a couple of layups to cut into Malvern’s lead.
As the two teams headed into the locker room, the Lady Leopards were clinging to a 12-11 lead.
It wasn’t until 1:10 had elapsed in the third quarter before Malvern finally scored again. Penix hit the second of two free throws to give the Lady Leopards a 13-11 lead, but Prairie Grove erased the lead just 14 seconds later on a layup to tie the game at 13-13.
With 6:13 left in the third quarter, Malvern fans witnessed something that reminded them of the Lady Leopards’ semifinal game against Star City.
In another tight game, one of Malvern’s key players (Huell) picked up a lot of fouls rather quickly before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.
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 5:15 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 16-13. Less than a minute later, Prairie Grove had made another lay up and the Lady Leopards found themselves down 18-13.
Huell answered back with a three-pointer with 3:50 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 (22-16) with 2:54 remaining in the third quarter.
Raven Baker finally got in the score book with a three pointer to cut that lead in half with 2:35 to go in the third, followed by a two-pointer by Penix with 1:15 left to trim the Malvern deficit to 22-21 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 25-21, 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 25-24 with 6:40 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 27-25 lead with 6:19 to go in the game.
After that, the Prairie Grove players ignored the student section (who obviously wasn’t watching the game) and guarded Penix closely, but the damage had been done.
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 5:55 remaining and hit both free throws to tie the game at 27-27.
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 29-27 lead with 4:55 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.
Senior Zoe Ollison would come in to replace Westbrook and did an admirable job guarding Prairie Grove’s star player.
Westbrook’s foul resulted in just one made free throw for the Lady Tigers, so Malvern still held a 29-28 advantage.
With 2:20 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.
The pass was a little over Baker’s head and there was a mad dash for the ball between her and the defender.
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 1:03 left in the game gave Malvern a 31-30 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.
She calmly hit both free throws and for the shortest of moments, it appeared as if Malvern’s dream of being state champion was over.
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 3.7 seconds left in the game to give the Lady Leopards a 33-32 lead.
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.
When the state championship trophy was presented to the Lady Leopards and Queen’s “We are the Champions” played over the loudspeaker, there were few, if any, dry eyes on the floor.
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). She also had four rebounds (three offensive), one assist and one steal.
Junior Alivia Huell scored seven points with five rebounds (three offensive), one assist and the game-clinching steal.
Sophomore Raven Baker added five points, two steals and an offensive rebound.
Junior MVP Akasha Westbrook scored four points with seven rebounds (two offensive) and four steals.
Junior Tiffany Murdock had two points (the game winning points), five assists and four rebounds (two offensive).
As a team, Malvern shot 25.5 percent from the field (12-47) and 27.3 percent from the three-point line (6-22). They also made three of their four free throw attempts for a 75 percent completion percentage.
Prairie Grove made 12 of its 33 shots (36.4 percent) and one of six three pointers (16.7 percent). The Lady Tigers were 7-9 (77.8 percent) from the free throw line.
The Lady Leopards were out-rebounded 31-24, but had more offensive rebounds (13-9). They had eight steals and forced 15 turnovers in the game while turning the ball over just eight times themselves.