Has An Arkansas David Ever Toppled a National Goliath in Prep Basketball?

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Gregg Easter and the Hall Warriors couldn't take down Goliath last night. There's certainly historic precedent.
Gregg Easter and the Hall Warriors couldn’t take down Goliath last night. There’s certainly historic precedent. Courtesy: Tom Harden

Little Rock’s Hall High fell to the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school team last night 60-45, which got me thinking how many other Arkansas basketball teams have actually had a shot at the national top dog before.

Most previous occurrences happened in the 1980s at Pine Bluff’s King Cotton Classic, which was the nation’s  top prep basketball tournament in the winter. Indeed, ESPN’s first televised regular-season high school game was the 1987 King Cotton title game. The following articles are from the Arkansas Gazette.

1. Jan. 5, 1986

 PINE BLUFF _ Flint Hill of Oakton, Va., really made sure pesky Pine Bluff wouldn’t stage their third upset comeback in the King Cotton Classic. The result: Flint Hill by 21-0 with 2:31 left in the first period. By the time it was officially over, the high-flying Falcons had disposed of the Zebras by 91-60 to wear the new King Cotton crown. Flint Hill, now 10-0, came with no intention other than to blow the Zebras away before a crowd of 4,700. The Zebras were no match. Using a killing full-court press, Flint Hill made mincemeat of the Zebras. The Falcons did it all and Pine Bluff destructed.

Pine Bluff committed 10 turnovers in the first quarter, and the Falcons turned most of them into layups. Sam Jefferson, the Falcon’s 6-10 center, established the inside domination by scoring the first five points. Pine Bluff’s Michael Mc Cray, who ignited the Zebras’ late comebacks, picked up three fouls with 4:44 left in the first period. The crowd cheered when sophomore Andra Sims scored on a layup at 2:17 and booed at 3:46 when Robert Pearson’s would-be basket was disallowed on a charging foul. Flint Hill led by 27-8 after the first eight minutes by 46-25 at the half and by 66-43 entering the final period. Dennis Scott, a multi-talented 6-6 junior, who was named tourney’s Most Valuable Player, finished with a game-high 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Jefferson had 15, Richard Berry 12 and Brian Domalik 10. Domalik, a 6-0 point guard, also had eight assists and five steals. Pine Bluff, 5-5, was led by Sims’ 23 points and seven rebounds. Officials announced after the game that the Falcons would return to defend their crown.

Pine Bluff has reached the finals of two out of three King Cotton Classics, losing by 31 points to Oakton (Va.) Flint Hill and by 25 points to Baltimore Dunbar. [ed. this team might have been ranked No. 1 as well, but I couldn’t find confirmation]. Dunbar entered the first tourney as the defending national champion. Flint Hill entered ranked No. 1 in the country.

” They $(Flint Hill$) compare with Dunbar,” Pine Bluff coach Joe Ball said, who saw his Zebras shut out, 21-0, in the first period. ” In fact, if I had to chose a team to coach, I’d take Flint Hill. They can do so many things well.” Flint Hill shot 61.2 per cent from the field against Pine Bluff, 50.9 against Seattle (Wash.) Garfield, and 64.4 per cent against East Ascension. All three challengers shot under 45 per cent from the field.

2. Dec 1 1987 _

Flint Hill of Oakton, Va., ranked No. 1 in USA Today’s Top 25 high school poll, Wednesday night almost tripped on a Peel, as in Rodney Peel of Little Rock Hall. Flint Hill relied on All-American Dennis Scott’s four points in the last 42 seconds to turn back Peel and the Warriors, 64-62, in the King Cotton Holiday Classic in the Pine Bluff Convention Center. ” What can you say, we got beat by the No. 1 team in the nation, but we had our chances,” Hall coach Oliver Elders said. ” We played as well as we could. But I’m disappointed because I play to win. Coming close only counts in horseshoes.”Scott, a 6-7 forward who many consider the top prep player in the country, finished with 24 points. He rebounded his own miss and popped a 10-footer from the left corner to give Flint Hill the lead for good, 62-60, with 42 seconds left. Flint Hill, the defending tourney champion, padded the lead to 64-60 after Scott smiled confidently and sank two free throws with eight seconds left. Hall shot an amazing 63 per cent from the field in the first half for a 36-36 tie and finished at 54 per cent for the game. ” I didn’t expect them to shoot that well,” Flint Hill coach Stu Vetter said. ” I told my players that they couldn’t possibly keep it up, but they did. Their guard combination is outstanding because my guards have held the country’s best down, but we had a difficult time tonight. Tonight, I rate Hall very high among the top teams in the country .” A crowd of 3,500 cheered in unison for the underdog Warriors as 5-11 Peel, who finished with 28 points, calmly sank both free throws to give Hall a 57-56 advantage with 2:30 left in the game.

After trading baskets, Scott scored on a jumper on an inbounds pass for a 60-58 lead with 1:20 left. Tension mounted as Hall’s 5-7 point guard Jimmy Hinton dribbled on offense. After a pass, Peel was fouled while shooting. The Convention Center erupted as Peel sank two more free throws to tie the game at 60-60 with 58 seconds left. Trailing 62-60, Hall called a time-out. The key play came 12 seconds later. Peel double-pumped and missed a jumper and Flint Hill rebounded. As time ran out, Peel stole the ball on an outlet pass and hastily shot the ball from deep in the left corner with 15 seconds left. Scott grabbed the rebound for Flint Hill and was quickly fouled with eight seconds left. ” I don’t want to overshadow a fine team effort, especially Peel’s,” Elders said, “but we took some shots out of character like the Hail Mary with 15 seconds left or Sterling Freeman passing up an easy shot earlier. We had time to set up for a good shot. It’s my fault as a coach because I should have a signal or had a hammer to hit him Peel over the head with.”

It was Peel-Hinton show in the first half. The under six-foot guard tandem blitzed Flint Hill for 24 of Hall’s first 36 points. While Peel hit five consecutive jumpers from everywhere on the floor, Hinton danced, passed out eight assists, and otherwise made believers of Flint Hill’s All-Americans who smiled cockily early, but faces turned to serious worry late. Hall was unfazed by Flint Hill’s press clippings as Peel’s five jumpers gave the Warriors an 18-10 advantage with 2:20 left in the first quarter. Flint Hill rallied behind 6-7 center Aaron Bain’s 17 points and Scott’s 12. Despite Hall’s outstanding play, Scott sank a hasty jumper from 35 feet with one second left to tie the game 36-36 at the half. Bain finished with 28 points. Freeman added 11 points for the Warriors. Flint Hill won the battle of the boards by 18-10 in the first half and by 30-10 for the game.

3. Additionally, in 1988-89 a team from New Jersey featuring Bobby Hurley, Terry Dehere, Jerry Walker and freshman big man Rodrick Rhodes tore through the King Cotton and went on to stake its claim as one of the greatest prep teams ever.  Many people who attended the King Cotton multiple times said this was the best prep team to ever play in the state. I haven’t found confirmation that these juggernaut St. Anthony (N.J.) Friars were ranked No. 1 by a major outlet and that they played an Arkansas team during their time in Pine Bluff, but I would be surprised if neither was the case.

4.  The Fort Smith Northside girls’ only loss in 2001-02 came in a 66-52 loss to No.1-ranked Los Angeles team in the finals of the  Energy Classic Basketball Invitational in Gillette, Wyoming. Northside still finished No. 3 according to USA Today. Here’s its excerpt in the standings at season’s end:

3. Northside, Fort Smith, Ark. (29-1)

Previous: 3. Recap: Won its fourth consecutive Class 5A state title, setting a state record with 16 straight state tournament wins. Louisiana Tech-bound Tamika Kursh was selected Tournament MVP. Coach Rickey Smith’s team closed on 17-game win streak. Its only loss was to No. 1 Lynwood (Calif.).

5. Going farther back than the 1980s, records of national polls get progressively harder to pin down as prep sports reporting was a much smaller business. Still, there is a case to be made that the best all-black Arkansas program in the pre-integration era would have played the nation’s top team. In the late 1950s, future NBA All-Star Eddie Miles led North Little Rock’s Scipio Jones to numerous state titles and victories over teams in neighboring states.

Scipio Jones was invited to a Tennessee tournament involving nine state champions that was considered the equivalent of a national black high school championship. Coaches from major college programs all over the nations flocked to it. In the 1959 finals, Scipio Jones ran up against a buzzsaw in Nashville’s Pearl High School, which was in the midst of winning three titles in a row. Jones lost 76-72, but if there had been national basketball polls at that time, Pearl would almost certainly have been ranked #1.

6. Finally, Jim Bryan, a friend who specializes in the history of prep basketball in Arkansas, tells me in 1927 there was a national high school tournament in Chicago and Batesville High finished 2nd. Granted, the teams represented at such a tournament did not likely extend out of the midwest and South, but it’s a notable achievement.

One last tantalizing question: Which Arkansas team came closest to achieving a No. 1 national ranking itself?

I’d go with the 91-92 Parkview Patriots, which went 35-1 and finished the season at No. 5 in Doug Huff’s National Prep Poll and Nov. 4 in ESPN’s Scholastic Sports Poll. The only hiccup was an OT 74-70 loss to Los Angeles Fremont in the finals of the Las Vegas Holiday Prep Classic. The Patriots, which featured five seniors who would play Division I basketball, would have likely won had one of two things not happened:

1. Big man Maurice Robinson fouled out with seven minutes left in regulation

2. Guard James Lindsey was kept out of the game with an injured Achilles tendon

 

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