By Jason Avery
After qualifying for the state tournament last week, Junction City was unable to improve its seeding at the regional tournament, falling to McGehee and Centerpoint.
For the Dragons to advance beyond the first round, they must find a way to defeat not only one of the hottest teams in 3A, but one that has played exceptionally well away from home.
This afternoon, the Dragons take on Harding Academy in the opening round of the 3A State Tournament.
Game time is set for 2:30 p.m. from Monticello.
The Dragons (17-12) are the No. 4 seed from the 4-3A, while the Wildcats (22-8) are the 2-3A regional champions.
The Wildcats entered the regional tournament seeded third, but after eliminating Little Rock Episcopal, the Wildcats avenged a pair of losses by upending Tuckerman in the semifinals before crushing Barton in the title game.
Just eight days prior to meeting in the regional final, Barton topped Harding Academy 44-40, but the Wildcats rolled to a 53-25 win in the rematch.
Now the Dragons must find a way to slow down the Wildcats if they are to keep their season alive, which will not be easy considering the Wildcats are a combined 16-5 this year in games played at neutral sites and on the road.
“Harding Academy is very talented,” said Junction City coach Kendall Hutcheson. “They’ve got a lot of length. You might be looking at 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 out there at the same time. Their big guys play out on the perimeter, too.
“They can shoot the ball, they can put it on the floor a little bit. It’s going to be a challenge for us. They play some man and zone. They’re solid on defense. On offense, they shoot the ball well outside and they have that size. They can go inside with a good post-up game, too.
“They’re really figuring stuff out and really clicking at the right time. When the state tournament comes around, it really doesn’t matter how good you were during the year, a lot of it comes down to matchups, and who matches up better with everyone.
“With them being as hot as they are right now, and the size being a little bit of a matchup difficulty for us, it’s going to be a challenge, no doubt.”
But it’s not just the Wildcats’ size that makes matters tough for opponents, they are also very athletic, and Hutcheson said the Dragons must take good shots.
“These guys are athletic, too,” Hutcheson said. “They get out there and they attack the glass hard. They shoot the ball well. Any time you have to go shoot in and over 6-4, 6-5, it changes your shot a little bit. It makes things more difficult. I think the key is going to be that we have to make sure that we’re taking quality shots and we’re trying to force it. We need to be patient enough to wait for that shot that we’re looking for.”
At the regional tournament, inconsistency was an issue for the Dragons.
“Against Prescott, we probably three good quarters of basketball,” Hutcheson said. “Against McGehee, we played about two minutes in the first half, and didn’t really play well at all after that for the first half. We came out in the second half, and the kids played extremely hard. It was the same thing against Centerpoint. We played probably two quarters of good basketball. We’ve got to put together four good quarters of basketball.
“At this time of year, everybody’s good, and if you come in and you have a quarter or two at the state tournament where you just don’t take care of the basketball, take bad shots and don’t play solid defense, it’s over with.
“These kids know that. They’re used to being there. They’re used to going deep in it. Last year, we had a first-round exit, and it was the first time in six years that we hadn’t been to at least the semifinals. They know what it takes. It’s just that we’ve got to play better basketball and be more consistent if we intend to make a run.”
If the Dragons are to advance, it will come down to offensive execution.
“You’ve got to be patient enough on offense to get the shot that you want, and not the shot they want you to take,” Hutcheson said. “A lot of times, we’ve found ourselves taking some quick shots that maybe aren’t our best shots. We’re not taking the shots we need to take. I think we have to be patient on offense and push when it’s there, and when it’s not, make sure we’re taking the shot we want to. Defensively, we’ve got to play solid defense for four quarters, because if you don’t, a team like Harding Academy can pick you apart.”