Settling for runner-up didn’t sit well with the Viola Lady Longhorns last season, so they set out to do something about it.
“It just seemed like we came up short in just about everything,” Viola Coach Jason Hughes said. “We were district runner-up, regional runner-up. Even in our non-conference tournaments, we finished runner-up in a couple of those.
“But this year, we went out and won the Williams Baptist tournament. We won our regional, but I think winning the district tournament got us over the hump and has kind of propelled us throughout this postseason run.”
The Lady Longhorns hope their last playoff hurdle of the season doesn’t result in another second-place finish when they take on Kirby in the Class 1A girls state championship game Thursday at noon inside Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs.
Consolation prizes haven’t been in the cards for Viola (39-2) in the 2019-2020 season. The Lady Longhorns won their first 21 games before tasting defeat. Their first loss came against Class 3A finalist Mountain View on Dec. 28, and that was a month and a half after they’d beaten the Lady Yellow Jackets on the road.
They did lose in the finals of the Kell Classic to Marmaduke, but have since won 16 games in a row, most of which by blowout. But Hughes isn’t expecting a rout of any kind against a Lady Trojans team that’s been just as dominant.
Kirby (38-5) is riding a 17-game winning streak, with 16 of those victories coming by at least 13 points.
“We’ve had some breaks, but it’s worked out so far,” Kirby Coach Robert Tucker said. “After getting bounced in the first round of state last year, they were determined to get back and make a run. Because of that, their mindset has been totally different.
“Just the maturity level. We stressed all year about being together and being good teammates. They’ve worked hard, know their roles and have been focused on the things we have to do to compete and win games.”
Both teams — which were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 by the
prior to last week’s state tournament — have been buoyed by balanced lineups, but a pair of juniors stood out in each team’s semifinal victories. Sami McCandlis, a 5-9 guard, had a team-high 19 points in Viola’s 60-56 victory of West Side Greers Ferry, and McKenzie Jones, a 6-0 center, scored 29 points in Kirby’s 67-33 drubbing of Alpena. Each player presents a challenge that neither Hughes nor Tucker are taking lightly.
“Their size, especially with [Jones], is gonna be tough to deal with,” Hughes said. “They’ve got a lot of the same balance we do, but she is a difference-maker inside. Kirby shoots it well, too.
“Any time you have that kind of inside-outside attack, it’s hard to defend.”
Tucker noted that shooting was an issue for his team early on, but it’s come on as of late. The Lady Trojans knocked down 17 three-pointers in their three state tournament games, including seven in their opener against Western Yell County. But it’s Jones’ presence on the interior that’s made them potent.
“She averaged 16-18 points throughout the season, but she’s stepped it up lately,” Tucker mentioned. “Our inside game has been our strongest point no doubt. McKenzie usually makes the right basketball play, too. She’s just been great all year.”
If there’s a team in Class 1A that’s been able to adjust to opposing teams’ strength in the paint, it’s Viola.
The Lady Longhorns held West Side Greers Ferry 6-0 senior center Alex Souther-land to 11 points one day after she dropped 24 in the quarterfinals against Emerson. According to Hughes, it’s going to take another collective effort to slow down Jones and the rest of her teammates.
“We’re gonna have to do it as a team like we have the entire season,” he said. “We’re balanced on defense, and I think that’s what it’s gonna come down to. Of course, we’re gonna have to maintain our balance and have some inside and outside scoring ourselves.
“But the team that plays the best defense and makes the fewest mistakes will be the one that probably gets to hoist that trophy.”
At a glance
STATE CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE
At Bank OZK Arena, Hot Springs
NOTE All games will be televised on Arkansas PBS.
1A GIRLS Viola vs. Kirby, noon
1A BOYS Izard County vs. Nevada, 1:45 p.m.
2A GIRLS Melbourne vs. Quitman, 6 p.m. 2A BOYS Earle vs. England, 7:45 p.m.
3A GIRLS Valley Springs vs. Mountain View, noon
3A BOYS Osceola vs. Rivercrest, 1:45 p.m.
4A GIRLS Star City vs. Farmington, 6 p.m.
4A BOYS Magnolia vs. Mills, 7:45 p.m.
5A GIRLS Greenwood vs. Nettleton, 11:30 a.m.
5A BOYS Jacksonville vs. West Memphis, 1:15 p.m.
6A GIRLS Fayetteville vs. Bentonville, 6 p.m.
6A BOYS Conway vs. Little Rock Central, 7:45 p.m.