Magnolia will get the opportunity to defend its state basketball title against the same team it defeated a year ago.
Last season, the upset-minded Panthers took a 78-76 overtime victory over the Little Rock Mills Comets.
This time around, the unbeaten Panthers will be favorites.
No. 1 Magnolia and No.2 Little Rock Mills will square off in the Class 4A State Finals at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs.
The Panthers enter the contest with a perfect 26-0 record, while the Comets are 28-3.
The Comets, led by JaKari Livingston, lost by six points earlier in the season to West Memphis and dropped games later on to Rogers and Pulaski Academy.
Mills is averaging 62.6 points per game and allowing 49.8 points per contest.
The Panthers average around 70 points per outing and give up an average of 42.4 points.
Magnolia and Mills have both played Brookland this season, with the Panthers surviving a double overtime scare in the state semifinals.
The Comets battled Brookland in the second round of their regional tournament and held on for a 53-50 win on Feb. 28.
Derrian Ford scored 36 points as the Panthers avoided an upset last Saturday night to advance to the state title game after the double-overtime thriller.
“Brookland was well-coached and had so many shooters out there. That’s what made it tough,” said Magnolia head coach Ben Lindsey. “When you get up on them, they play keep away until someone is open for a shot.”
The coach said he knew it would be tough on his Panthers if Brookland had the lead.
“They had it most of the game and that’s what I was afraid of,” he said, adding his Panthers didn’t come out and get a good start.
Ford had 28 points in the second half and Lindsey said the sophomore is something special.
“Athletes like him don’t come along very often. We have good players on this team, but he’s got to be one of the best to come through Magnolia. Go look at that wall at Panther Arena and you will see some good ones,” explained the coach.
Lindsey also said Magnolia fans need to enjoy Ford and the other young talented Panthers while they are around.
“They are also super, super kids that we shouldn’t take for granted because they won’t be here for ever,” he added.
Brookland led for most of the game, grabbing a 5-0 lead and holding the advantage until late in the fourth quarter.
Another Magnolia sophomore, Adrien Walker, who did not enter the game until late in the fourth quarter, got a steal and layup to draw a foul with 18 seconds left. His free throw gave the Panthers the lead for the first time at 46-45.
“No matter what level of basketball you play, a team needs a little luck or something to go its way. We had some luck with us on our side,” stated Lindsey.
Brookland’s David York was fouled with 0.6 seconds left and hit the first free throw to tie the game, but missed the second, sending it into overtime tied 46-46.
Magnolia led 53-49 with under a minute left in the first overtime when Brookland’s Drew Thompson banked in a three-pointer from the right side and drew a foul on the shot with 27 seconds left. His free throw tied the game at 53-53 with the four-point play.
“That was an unbelievable shot and foul on the play. I will leave it there. Again, Brookland’s plan was to pass as many times as they could and then find a shot. Everyone they put on the floor could shoot the ball,” he said.
Magnolia had a chance to win it at the end of the first overtime, but Colby Garland’s layup at the buzzer rimmed out.
According to Lindsey, Brookland is a type of team that doesn’t mind winning 20-19. He noted they were able to get the Panthers out of their rhythm, which is to get up and down the court.
In the second overtime, Ford took the game over. The sophomore hit back-to-back driving layups for a 59-54 Magnolia lead, then his two free throws with 26 seconds left clinched the win.
Throughout the course of the game during timeouts, Lindsey said he kept reminding his Panthers of who they were and why they were where they were.
“I told them to keep pressuring and rotating out of our different traps. But the main thing was reminding them they had been in this position before, including last year’s championship game,” said the coach.
Looking ahead to the rematch with Mills, Lindsey said the Comets are super, super athletic and very deep.
“They are loaded, but we are going to give it our best shot. We plan to go nose-to-nose with them, and then see what happens,” he added.
Mills’ Livingston scored 24 points and had three dunks in the second half in their semifinal victory over Estem last Saturday.
“Livingston is tough, and he had some really good spurts for us,” Mills Coach Raymond Cooper said about his junior center. “He guards, he rebounds and, as you can see, he’s pretty explosive, too, with the basketball.”
Returning to Hot Springs was a season-long goal for Mills, who will take a 15-game winning streak into the championship game.
Javion Guy-King added 19 points for Mills.
“[Guy-King] had four fouls there, and I was waiting for the right time to put him back in,” Cooper said. “He’s such a matchup problem because he can handle the basketball and rebound. We got him back in toward the end of the game, and I was just praying he didn’t pick up that fifth foul.”