Gutsy Bulldogs bounce back to stun Andover Central on Hunter O’Toole’s buzzer-beater
SALINA – An incredible, evenly-matched battle took place Saturday afternoon at the KSHSAA Class 4A D-I State Tournament at Tony’s Pizza Events Center.
Unfortunately for both teams, it wasn’t for the 4A D-I State championship.
The Arkansas City High School boys basketball team captured the third-place trophy with a 57-55 triumph against Andover Central in the third-place game.
On a team full of seniors, it figured that one of their own would play the hero. And on a team like the Bulldogs, it figured that everyone would share in the wealth.
Senior Hunter O’Toole hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to snap a 55-55 tie and send the Bulldogs (19-6) home with some hardware.
The Jaguars (18-6) had just tied the score with a demoralizing 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining in regulation. But all that did was set the table for O’Toole — and the rest of the ACHS seniors: Jordan Wilson, Nathan Spencer, Hunter Stewart, Paul Fiorentino and Cooper Pierce — to bask in the glory as the buzzer sounded.
Most important, the ACHS Class of 2018 — and the coaching staff, led by head coach CJ Jennings, restored some badly-needed pride in a program that finished with a 1-20 record just five years ago.
These Bulldogs showed promise last season after finishing 11-10 — the first winning season in memory. Before that, the team was a combined 9-53 in a three-year stretch.
“We’ve been together since they were freshmen. We’ve been through a lot together,” coach CJ Jennings said. “That was the start of us building what we wanted to see them do as seniors. They were close friends before I ever got there, so I was on the outside looking in.”
Ark City has quietly compiled a 10-2 record in tournament games the past two years. The Bulldogs won back-to-back titles at the Chaparral Roadrunner Class to go along with this year’s 4A D-I Sub-state championship. Their only two tourney losses were Saturday and a heartbreaking 46-45 loss to Maize in last year’s 5A Sub-state tourney.
“There’s been a significant change in terms of wins and losses,” Jennings said. “A lot of coaches went through the struggle part of it for me. Coach (Anthony) Brantley took seven years of it. He struggled with teams where he had a couple of talented kids. There was just a lot that went on in the last 10, 15 years.”
One of the first things Jennings said he did when he was coaching the freshman team four years ago was to divert the losing philosophy that permeated throughout the program.
“For me, the one thing I will say, having that group as freshmen and really trying to build with them — I kept those kids away from our upperclassmen a little bit,” Jennings said. “At some point in time, you have to stop the bad and negative things that have been going on with the program. I was blessed to come in with the group that I had, but obviously, there were some people who went through some bad times.”
All eight players who saw game time Saturday scored for the Bulldogs, who finished 63.2 percent (12 of 19) from the floor in the second half while overcoming a 24-22 halftime deficit after Friday night’s heartbreaking loss to McPherson in the semifinals.
Pierce and junior Cevin Clark scored 11 points apiece. Pierce did his on 4-of-7 shooting, including 3 of 6 from 3-point range while grabbing five rebounds. Clark managed his on 4-of-9 shooting, 2 of 5 from beyond the arc, to go with six rebounds and six assists.
Fiorentino hit 3 of 6 from long range to finish with nine points in his final high school game. O’Toole chipped in six points, while Stewart and Jordan Wilson added five each. Junior AJ Wilson finished with seven points.
Ark City outrebounded the Jaguars (18-6) 27-19.
The two teams battled just as closely on Saturday as they had during the regular season, when they each won close games on the road. The Jaguars won 53-51 on Dec. 15 at Ark City, and the Bulldogs were victorious 59-56 on Feb. 16 in Andover, with just five points separating the two teams during the regular season.
Saturday’s game featured 12 ties and 11 lead changes.
Andover Central’s largest lead was six, in the first quarter, while the Bulldogs blew an eight-point, fourth-quarter lead.
Nolan Crawford and Braden Belt hit 3-pointers to open the game for the Jaguars, but Paul Fiorentino came back down and nailed back-to-back 3-pointers on the other end.
The two teams traded missed long shots through much of the first quarter before Cevin Clark and Belt traded 3-pointers as the teams tied 9-9 after the first eight minutes.
Fiorentino’s missed attempt with 6:22 remaining was the only shot attempt inside the arc for either team in the first quarter. Andover Central was 3 of 7 from beyond the arc in the period, while the Bulldogs were 3 of 7 from long range.
Xavier Bell scored inside 1:21 into the second quarter to snap the tie, but O’Toole scored on Ark City’s next possession. Cooper Pierce snapped a two-minute scoring drought with a 3-pointer with 4:14 left in the first half, then gave the Bulldogs the biggest lead by either team in the first half with a basket off a rebound by Hunter Stewart.
Shomari Parnell sank a pair of freebies, then the Jaguars knotted the score 16-16 on a Leo Mackie 3-pointer with 3:12 remaining in the half. However, Fiortentino quickly snapped it with a trey on the other end.
After two more ties, 20-20 and 22-22, Parnell and Easton Leedom each sank 1 of 2 at the line to give the Jaguars a 24-22 lead at halftime.
Belt’s 3-pointer with three seconds left in the third quarter gave the Jaguars a 42-38 lead.
Jordan Wilson sank a pair of freebies, and the Bulldogs regained the lead again on Pierce’s 3-pointer with 7:18 remaining.
Pierce buried another trey, then Clark grabbed a rebound and fed Jordan Wilson on a fast break for a six-point advantage, 48-43.
Back came the Jaguars.
Trailing by five, 49-44, Bell grabbed the rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Leedom and scored on the put-back with 4:06 left. AJ Wilson sank a pair of free throws, Clark drove the paint and Nathan Spencer sank a freebie to build Ark City’s lead to eight, 54-46, with 2:26 left, but it still wasn’t enough to put away Andover Central.
Leedom scored on back-to-back buckets to cut the deficit to four, 54-50, with 1:50 remaining.
The Jaguars fouled Clark out of an Ark City timeout, and Clark hit 1 of 2 at the 1:26 mark. Bell grabbed the rebound and drove coast-to-coast for a layup with 1:12 left, setting up Belt’s game-tying 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining.
The Bulldogs called a timeout with 18 ticks on the clock to set up one final play. O’Toole hit a jumper as the buzzer sounded to send those fans home happy who made the two-plus hour drive north.
“The ball bounced on the rim four times,” Jennings said. “It was just a great moment. It was great to finish the state tournament with a league opponent in a rubber match.”
Belt finished with a game-high 18 points on 5-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. Bell added 14 points, but was just 6-of-13 shooting, including 0 of 4 from 3-point range. Leedham was held to eight points and 3-of-12 shooting, including 1 of 7 from beyond the arc. The Jaguars shot 45 percent (18 of 40) from the floor.
Now Jennings and his coaching staff, assistants David Boxman and Justin Spencer, turn their attention to retooling after losing much of the team to graduation. Clark and AJ Wilson are the only returnees with consistent varsity playing time.
“That’s something we started talking about early in the year, is the future. Whatever you do, you have to keep that in mind,” Jennings said. “Our kids got a taste of success. One thing I’ve been telling them, the blueprint is there. The expectations are much higher, and that’s what we want with Ark City basketball. That’s how you build a winning culture. I’m really excited about next year. I’m excited about these kids. I believe that you’re going to see some kids who are going to come in and work extremely hard because they want to come back.”
Ark City 57, Andover Central 55
ANDOVER CENTRAL (18-6)
Braden Belt 5-6 3-4 18, Xavier Bell 6-13 2-3 14, Easton Leedham 3-12 1-3 8, Shomari Parnell 1-2 5-5 7, Leo Mackie 2-4 0-0 5, Nolan Crawford 1-3 0-0 3, Jacey Washington 0-0 0-1 0, Jerome Washington 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-40 11-16 55.
ARKANSAS CITY (19-6)
Cooper Pierce 4-7 0-0 11, Cevin Clark 4-9 1-2 11, Paul Fiorentino 3-8 0-0 9, AJ Wilson 2-2 3-4 7, Hunter O’Toole 3-4 0-0 6, Jordan Wilson 1-1 3-6 5, Hunter Stewart 2-3 0-0 5, Nathan Spencer 1-3 1-2 3. Totals 20-37 8-14 57.
3-Point goals: Central 8-21 (Belt 5-5, Crawford 1-2, Mackie 1-2, Leedom 1-7, Parnell 0-1, Bell 0-4); Ark City 9-20 (Fiorentino 3-6, Pierce 3-6, Clark 2-5, Stewart 1-1, O’Toole 0-1, Spencer 0-1). Rebounds: Central 19 (Bell 6, Leedom 6); Ark City 27 (Clark 6, Pierce 5). Assists: Central 10 (Bell 4); Ark City 8 (Clark 6). Steals: Central 6 (Belt 2); Ark City 3 (Spencer 2). Blocks: Central 2 (Bell 1, Crawford 1); Ark City 0. Turnovers: Central 6, Ark City 11. Fouled out: J. Wilson. Total fouls: Central 18, Ark City 20.