Nine years ago, Jess Martin inherited a Malvern girls basketball program that had a bleak outlook.
“I was told if I won three or four games my first year, I could run for mayor,” Martin said. But there was hope in the form of a little, talented fifth-grader. Actually, three fifth-graders, but the little point guard, Tiffany Murdock, stuck out a little more.
“You could tell Tiffany’s skills were advanced for her age group. She was more athletic than the average kid,” Martin said. “You could tell early she was going to be a special player.”
Murdock hasn’t disappointed. In two seasons as the Lady Leopards’ starting point guard, she has helped engineer a trip to the 4A state semifinals, and last season hit the game-winning shot to lead Malvern to its first-ever girls basketball state title.
“To win a championship and break records is a dream come true,” Murdock said.
Martin noticed Murdock and her classmates, Akesha Westbrook and Alivia Huell, while the trio played peewee basketball. Five years later, the young players ignited the program to uncharted heights. Murdock got a taste of varsity action after she completed her junior high season. She moved up in time to see significant minutes in the state tournament. A year later, the team was hers to run, and along with Westbrook and Huell, the three helped Malvern to the state semifinals. “[Murdock] kind of struggled at first with making decisions and being a leader and getting things under control, but by the end of the season, she stepped up and filled that role well,” Martin said.
Eventual 4A champion Star City bounced Malvern from the semifinals. However, Star City had a much tougher time with Malvern (a 6-point victory) than it did with runner-up Farmington (a 25-point margin).
Martin drove the girls to Hot Springs to watch that game and pointed out how close they came to playing for a title.
“I wanted them to see it. Before last year, we looked at the gym and saw the two pictures of the boys state championship teams. I said, ‘That is what we want, right there,’” Martin said. “‘They can never take it away from you.”
The juniors and senior Shakara Penix and sophomore Raven Baker buzzed through the competition and entered the title game with Prairie Grove with a 31-2 mark.
Malvern trailed most of the game, and Murdock struggled with perimeter shooting. With 13 seconds left, the Lady Leopards had the ball with a 1-point deficit. Martin called on his point guard, who hadn’t scored and had missed on the last possession when the play was drawn up. “I told them, ‘We are going to win this game,’” Martin said.
“[Martin] asked me if the play broke down, could I score? I said, ‘Yes sir.’”
Murdock drove to the basket and pulled up from 12 feet. Her shot was short, and she instinctively followed it and put the rebound in with 4.6 seconds to play.
“I dribbled between my legs and found an opening,” Murdock said. “But the shot didn’t go down. It was just instincts for me to get it and put it in.”
Huell intercepted Prairie Grove’s long pass, and time ran out on Malvern’s 33-32 win — the first girls basketball title in Hot Spring County.
While her team had made history, Murdock entered the summer uneasy. Westbrook, an Arkansas State commit, and Huell, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock commit, had both received recruiting attention. Even Baker had heard from several schools, including some in the SEC. However, Murdock had little attention.
Murdock figured she’d have to wait until her senior season to hear from coaches. She was wrong.
The 5-foot-8 Murdock attended a camp at Louisiana Tech and was so impressive that she landed a scholarship offer on the spot.
“This was just a regular camp, not an invite camp,” Murdock said. “They let me play pickup with the team, and it just clicked. I played well.”
News of the offer startled Martin.
“A Louisiana Tech coach called me and asked how many offers [Murdock] had,” Martin said. “I said, ‘None.’ He told me they were going to offer right then. She got overlooked because we have some great players on our team and some great athletes. She worked hard over the summer and never got complacent. She went down to [Louisiana Tech] and played the way she is capable, and they told me out of 100 players, she was in the top three.”
For now, Murdock is committed to Louisiana Tech. She took an unofficial visit to Central Arkansas in early October and said she will evaluate other offers that materialize during the season.
With an offer in hand, Murdock’s focus is winning back-to-back state championships. Smith said she’s worked on her game, trying to be more assertive offensively, looking to score.
Murdock knows she’ll have to play well to help Malvern repeat.
“Last year we went into the season as the underdog. This year we have a target on our back,” Murdock said. “We have to go into every game and help these underclassmen. Every call isn’t going to go your way, but you have to play through it.”