BENTON – 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.
“What can you say about this team that hasn’t already been said,” Benton Coach Chris Nail said. “They’re winners, they’re good. They play together, they’re unselfish, they understand what their roles are and they’re willing to do it.”
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 didn’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.
Torres’ 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.
“I 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.”
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 Bluff’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.
“The key to being good offensively is being able to pass the ball and this team can pass the basketball,” Nail said. “A lot of times they’ll put on a little clinic out there on how to handle the basketball. That was big.”
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 Bluff’s desperation play and a little lack of focus from the Panthers made it a nine-point final.
“The second half I thought we lost our focus a little bit on rebounds and didn’t guard quite as good as we had, but it was a great win. Sometimes you just have to quit fussing. We’ll fuss [today] in practice.”
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.
“You couldn’t ask for five better kids,” Nail said of his seniors. “The bonus is they can all play basketball. They’re always here, they’ve got good parents, they’re respectful and they compete for Benton. It means something for them to put that Benton uniform on and that’s special. Even more, that’s kind of a dying trait, but these seniors have it. If you have high-character kids that can play basketball, you’re going to be a good coach. That’s what happened this year.”
Nail continued on the Panthers exceeding expectations.
“I thought we were going to be good this year,” he said. “I 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. There’s three parts to the season. Pre-conference, we did excellent. Conference, we did as good as you can do and now it’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.