MOUNTAIN HOME – The Benton Panthers defeated the Fayetteville Bulldogs 50-48 in overtime in the 1st Arkansas Bail Bonds Tournament in Mountain Home on Saturday to claim their second consecutive tournament championship. The Panthers defeated Cabot to take the title in Cabot, and lost to Jacksonville 53-48 in the Searcy Classic Championship game to start the season.
“We’ve been in three tournaments,” Benton Coach Dwaine Fishburn said of the Panthers this season. “We’ve been in three championship games and we’ve won the last two so they’re finding a way. It’s exciting for really a young team.
“We’ve had some exciting last two days. That stuff will make you an old man quick. We’ve been in triple overtimes, double overtimes, overtime. I told the kids we’re in overtime, might as well win it. It wears on you a little bit. Our kids had a good weekend.”
Senior Josh Bowling, who finished with 18 points and eight rebounds in the title game, took the tournament MVP, while fellow senior Blake Bowlin scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for a double-double and the MVP of the championship game.
The Panthers were down 36-23 late in the third quarter before Bowling led Benton back.
“The momentum began to swing in the third quarter,” Fishburn said. “Bowling scored seven points in a row and hit some major shots against their zone. He was very difficult for them to stop on the inside.”
With the help of 9 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, it was Bowlin who brought Benton back in the fourth. The Panthers tied it with just over four minutes to go in the game and would take the lead, 40-37, on a Bowlin 3-pointer, before Fayetteville would fight back.
“Blake kind of took over for us in the fourth quarter,” Fishburn said. “I called two timeouts and set up two threes for Blake and he hit both of them.”
Bowlin would hit 1 of 2 free throws with 5.4 seconds left to tie the game at 43-apiece going into overtime, where the Panthers, which have been in three overtime games this season, took control.
“You could tell our kids were calm,” Fishburn said. “I was never nervous in overtime because I knew our kids had been there before. They made some big free throws.”
Benton made 7 of 8 free throws, all its points in overtime.
“Unfortunately, we have had to play from behind,” Fishburn said about previous games. “The good news is we know how to do it, the bad news is you don’t want to have to do that.”
Guard play, which stepped up all weekend, was a big reason for the Panthers’ success in the title game.
“The key was our guards did such a good job of handling the pressure,” Fishburn said. “We only had six total turnovers. We’re getting such good guard play by Clay Anderson, Tarek Beaugard and Cason Maertens.”
Beaugard had six points, three steals and three assists, Maertens four points, two steals and two assists, and Anderson had three points, four assists and two rebounds.
The Panthers will play next on Friday in a make-up game against the Greenbrier Panthers, a team which beat Benton its first game of the year.
“We have a game against a team we lost in triple overtime to so we’re looking forward to that one. They are very well-coached. He does a great job with his team. We have a job to do.”
But unlike the first game of the year, the Panthers will be close to full strength this time around.
“It was our first game and it really was without our team,” Fishburn said of Beaugard and Maertens still with the football team. “This is really the first time we’ve actually had our team together was this weekend. Cason was out two weeks (injury), we’ve had people sick and hurt. I’m ready to have everybody healthy and back together.”
Fishburn said this season’s competition will have them ready for 7A/6A South conference play when it begins Jan. 10 against rival Bryant.
“I think the three championship games we’ve played in has got us ready. Think about it; playing Jacksonville, Springdale, Jonesboro, Fayetteville. We’ve played a very challenging schedule and there’s no doubt in my mind that schedule has got us ready for our conference coming up.”