In the big picture, Tuesday night’s game against rival Carolina Forest meant nothing to the Conway boys basketball team.
Already locked in as a No. 3 seed in the upcoming state playoffs, the contest was largely one last tune-up before competition truly ramps up.
For Tigers like Darren Stanley, however, the contest meant everything. Already an emotional night in which the team honored its seniors, there was added incentive for Stanley and classmates on the squad — the mere notion of taking on Carolina Forest one final time.
Though hampered by a slow start, Conway steadied itself just in time, allowing it to claim a 61-54 victory over the Panthers. With the win, the playoff-bound Tigers finish the regular season 16-5 (6-4 Region VI-5A).
Unable to claim one of four spots offered by Region VI-5A, it was Carolina Forest with something to prove Tuesday night, wanting to add another item to its resume in pursuit of an at-large playoff bid. As was to be expected, it was the Panthers who threw the first punches in the contest, jumping out to an 11-1 lead before most had settled into their seats.
Richmond Collier was the chief catalyst in Carolina Forest’s early flurry, knocking down three 3-pointers.
“(Collier) had the first three baskets, and it’s 9-0 … so we had to weather that storm,” said Conway boys basketball coach Michael Hopkins. “I told the guys we had a height advantage and that we needed to work the ball inside. We got it there some and started chipping away, chipping away and then made a flurry of our own.”
Though able to eventually take the lead at points in the opening 16 minutes, the Tigers trailed at halftime by a single point, 24-23. Carolina Forest would extend the lead to six points early in the third, forcing Hopkins to call a timeout.
Apparently the call to the bench was what Conway needed, the group taking the floor with a different attitude. Particularly junior standout Jimmy Nichols, who would single-handedly take the game over.
In the third period, Nichols scored 11 points to help turn a Tiger deficit into a nine-point advantage by its end.
“The middle was wide open, so anytime I got the ball I had to make shots,” he said. “And (Stanley) hit me with a good fast one one time, and I had to dunk that.”
Conway led by as many as 10 points in the second half. However, the Panthers would not go away, relying on their proficiency from deep range to keep it close.
At one point, Carolina Forest was down three points and in possession of the ball. According to coach Brian Brunson, those moments were the ones his squad did not take advantage of.
“We kept battling,” he said. “They came back, we weathered the storm, ended up with a lead going into halftime. So we went in feeling very good.
“Our defense was playing strong, battling on the boards and limiting some things. In the second half, they got the ball in the middle of the zone some, creating some easy opportunities for them, and we had some key turnovers and miscues. It wasn’t one thing, it was a lost possession here, a turnover there, a missed free throw too.”
Collier led all scorers with 25 points. Tariq Timmons was the only other Panther in double figures with 13.
As for Conway, Nichols had a team-high 21 points along with 13 rebounds. Tonka Hemingway also had 12 in a winning effort for the Tigers.
According to Stanley, his final regular-season game in the Conway High gym couldn’t have turned out any better.
“It feels real good, my last time playing CF, might have been my last time playing here,” he said. “But it was good to get the sweep in football and basketball, so to go out my senior year beating Carolina Forest is a good feeling.”
CF (54): Ismael Garcia 1, T-Jay Brunson 7, Richmond Collier 25, Matt Beale 5, Tariq Timmons 13, Freddie Kane 2, Seth Brown 1.
CON (61): Juwan Moody 1, Darren Stanley 6, Tonka Hemingway 12, Jaylen Moody 7, Jimmy Nichols 21, Marcus McDonald 5, Omontre McCleod 5, Timothy Steele 4.
3-pointers: CF 9 (Collier 6, Beale, Brunson, Timmons), CON 3 (McDonald, McCleod, Nichols). Team fouls: CF 14, CON 22. Fouled out: Kane (CF). Technical fouls: None.
Records: CF 9-14 (3-7 Region VI-5A), CON 16-5 (6-4 Region VI-5A)