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BENTON â€“ The Benton Panthers finished off their historic season with a 78-69 beating of the Pine Bluff Zebras in 7A/6A South conference action on Tuesday night in Benton Arena on Senior Night. The Panthers finished off the regular season with a school-record 25 wins against just two losses. The Panthers, which clinched conference last Tuesday, were undefeated in the South with a 14-0 record and will play East No. 8 Searcy as the South No. 1 seed. Tipoff is 8:30 p.m. at Greenwood High School.
â€śWhat can you say about this team that hasnâ€™t already been said,â€ť Benton Coach Chris Nail said. â€śTheyâ€™re winners, theyâ€™re good. They play together, theyâ€™re unselfish, they understand what their roles are and theyâ€™re willing to do it.â€ť
The nine-point victory is deceiving because the Panthers led by 20 with just over five minutes to go in the game, but the game didnâ€™t start that way. Consecutive layups by Darrian Kee and Rickey Clements put Pine Bluff up 4-0 early on, but the Zebra lead became very short-lived. Panthers senior Rickey Gipson hit a long 3-pointer, and after an 18-foot jumper by Clements, Benton senior point guard Bryan Torres hit an even longer three, a 25-footer to tie it at 6-6 with 4:35 left in the first.
Torresâ€™ 3-pointer started a 12-0 Panther run, where Torres hit another 25-footer, and Benton would lead 17-12 after one quarter of play.
â€śI thought Bryan shot the ball well in the first half and kind of got us going there, but [the Panthers] all did their part. It makes it fun.â€ť
One of two free throws from senior Quin Allen and consecutive layups from junior Josh Bowling put Benton up 22-12 and the rout was on. The Panthers led 34-16 with 1:48 left in the half after a Bowling layup assisted by junior guard Tarek Beaugard, and Benton led 39-22 at the half after junior Blake Bowlin nailed a three at the buzzer.
The Panthers dominated the boards, outrebounding the Zebras 18 to 6, and shot 15 of 26 (58 percent) in the first half to Pine Bluffâ€™s 9 of 23 (39 percent). The Panthers dished out nine assists to just four turnovers in the first half and had 18 assists with just nine turnovers for the game.
â€śThe key to being good offensively is being able to pass the ball and this team can pass the basketball,â€ť Nail said. â€śA lot of times theyâ€™ll put on a little clinic out there on how to handle the basketball. That was big.â€ť
An 18-footer from Tyrone Payne brought Pine Bluff within 41-29 with 6:20 remaining in the third, but Benton responded with a 9-0 run which included consecutive buckets each from senior post player Graham Gardner and Bowling, the last resulting in an and-1 opportunity, which Bowling completed with a made free throw and a 50-29 lead with 2:58 left.
The Panthers would lead 56-40 after three quarters of play and would lead 63-43 with 5:10 left in the game before Pine Bluffâ€™s desperation play and a little lack of focus from the Panthers made it a nine-point final.
â€śThe second half I thought we lost our focus a little bit on rebounds and didnâ€™t guard quite as good as we had, but it was a great win. Sometimes you just have to quit fussing. Weâ€™ll fuss [today] in practice.â€ť
Bowling led the Panthers with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Gardner added 14 points. Torres hit 3 of 5 from deep to finish with 12 points, Gipson had 10 points, five rebounds and three assists, and Allen had nine points, four rebounds and three assists.
â€śYou couldnâ€™t ask for five better kids,â€ť Nail said of his seniors. â€śThe bonus is they can all play basketball. Theyâ€™re always here, theyâ€™ve got good parents, theyâ€™re respectful and they compete for Benton. It means something for them to put that Benton uniform on and thatâ€™s special. Even more, thatâ€™s kind of a dying trait, but these seniors have it. If you have high-character kids that can play basketball, youâ€™re going to be a good coach. Thatâ€™s what happened this year.â€ť
Nail continued on the Panthers exceeding expectations.
â€śI thought we were going to be good this year,â€ť he said. â€śI thought we had a chance to win the league, but I never thought we would be 14-0. That makes it even more special. Coach [Dwaine] Fishburn made a good point. Thereâ€™s three parts to the season. Pre-conference, we did excellent. Conference, we did as good as you can do and now itâ€™s tournament time.
The South No. 1 Panthers will tip off with the East No. 8 Searcy Lions at 8:30 p.m. in Greenwood.