By Jason Avery
Strong finished the month of February on a high note, winning six straight games to claim the 8-1 East District Tournament crown and a berth in the finals of the 5-1A Regional Tournament.
Now the Bulldogs hope the month of March will be even better.
This afternoon, Strong takes on Western Grove in the first round of the 1A State Tournament.
Game time is set for 2:30 p.m. from Morrilton.
The Bulldogs (15-14) are the 5-1A’s No. 2 seed, while the Warriors (25-13) are the No. 3 seed from the 1-1A.
The winner will face Bay, the 2-1A regional champion, in the quarterfinals on Friday.
The Warriors are led by junior point guard Hunter Baker, who ranks as one of the most prolific scorers in the state regardless of class.
On nine occasions during the regular season, Baker scored 30 or more points, and Strong coach Greg Anthony said his team faces a tough task in trying to slow the junior down.
"Pretty much everything goes through him," Anthony said.
"He's left-handed. He's pretty much their go-to guy. You're not going to hold him scoreless, and we know that. He's too good of a player.
“You go into it with the idea that you're going to hold him to under his average and don't let anybody else beat you.
"You try to buckle down on them a little bit more and make it where you have to worry about him more than the others.
“We've looked at a couple of different things this week on defense that we're going to try to do with them and we'll see how it works."
Anthony said the Warriors compare favorably to conference rival Woodlawn.
"They're a lot like Woodlawn was for us," Anthony said. "The difference being that Woodlawn has three guards that really carried them. They're really good 3-point shooters.
"He (Baker) likes the mid-range stuff. They like getting him the ball and setting screens and letting him pull up from 15 feet or so. He doesn't really go inside a lot, so it's a little bit different."
At the regional tournament last week, the Bulldogs dispatched Trinity Christian before winning a second straight thriller over Woodlawn to reach the title game.
Nevada stopped Strong’s six-game winning streak to win the regional crown, and Anthony said his team is hoping to get back on track offensively.
"We played Nevada and we knew it was going to be a war," Anthony said. "We led them by six at half, and we didn't do a whole lot of adjusting at halftime because we felt like what we were doing was working pretty good.
“We just had a night where two of our two scorers just really, really had bad scoring nights. Derrion Davis is averaging over 20 a game, and he ends up with eight. Then you've got Trey Smith on the inside averaging about 18 or 19 a game, and he ends up with nine.
“We were really disappointed in the way we played offensively. We didn't play that bad defensively. We held them to 60.
"But offensively, it was just one of those nights where things weren't clicking. We were upset with ourselves a little bit, but you're going to have those nights sometimes, and you have to be able to overcome those.
“We're kind of going into the game with the mindset that we're going to redeem ourselves a little bit and not let it happen again and end the year on a bad note."
If the Bulldogs are to advance, Anthony said there were two keys for his team.
"I think there's two main keys for us," Anthony said. "One is the way we start. We need to come out and see if we can get on track better than what we did the other night, especially offensively. With us having a bad night offensively, I think that's going to be big for us.
“The other thing is for us to play the game that we want to play, and play at our pace. We can't let them do what they want to and dictate us. They're very fundamental.
"Their coach is Lendall Martin, and he's been coaching for a long, long time, so they're going to be very well-coached and play hard. It should be a pretty good game."