Highlanders' historic season ends with state tournament loss
CARLISLE — To say the Eureka Springs Highlanders got a tough draw in the first round of the Class 2A State Tournament would be a bit of an understatement.
Marked Tree, which entered the state tournament as a No. 4 seed after being ranked at or near the top of Class 2A for most of the season, defeated Eureka Springs 57-44 Tuesday afternoon at Carlisle High School.
Eureka Springs coach Brian Rambo said the Highlanders (33-6) expected a tough game from Marked Tree, which finished as the Class 2A state runner-up last season. The Indians (23-5) suffered two upset losses in regional tournament play but could well contend for a state championship.
“We got exactly what we thought we were going to get,” Rambo said. “It’s unfortunate that we had to play this game in the first round. It probably should have been a state semifinal.”
The Highlanders controlled the tempo for most of the first half, working patiently on offense to set up open shots. Unfortunately for Eureka Springs, most of those shots didn’t fall. The Highlanders shot 7-for-24 from the floor in the first half, including 1-for-12 from three-point range. Eureka Springs missed six shots on a single possession early in the first quarter.
Still, the Highlanders trailed only 20-18 at halftime.
“We did exactly what we wanted to do in the first half,” Rambo said. “We just didn’t make jump shots. If we shoot it decent, if we make four or five out of 12 from three-point range, we’re way ahead.”
Eureka Springs tied the game at 23-23 when junior guard Jackson Cross made a three-pointer early in the third quarter.
Marked Tree regained the lead with a three-pointer on its next possession. The Indians then used their pressure defense to force Eureka Springs into a pair of turnovers as Marked Tree scored six points in a 34-second span to push its lead to 32-23.
“They sped the pace of the game up,” Rambo said. “They got some turnovers with their press and got some easy baskets.”
Jackson Cross scored off a long pass in transition from senior guard Garrett Cross to pull the Highlanders within four points at 36-32 with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter. After a Marked Tree free throw, Jackson Cross drove the lane for a basket that cut the deficit to 37-34.
After a Marked Tree basket, Eureka Springs missed a pair of free throws and then failed to convert on a shot from close range. Marked Tree scored the next six points to complete an 8-0 run that left the Indians holding an 11-point lead at 45-34.
Marked Tree led by at least nine points the rest of the way. With Eureka Springs forced to foul, the Indians used late free throws to widen the final margin.
Jackson Cross led the Highlanders with 17 points, including three three-pointers. Senior guard Griffin Taylor added 10 points for the Highlanders.
The loss snapped a 19-game winning streak for the Highlanders, who earned the No. 1 seed by rallying from a nine-point deficit in the final 3:06 to beat Yellville-Summit 32-31 in the championship game of the 2A West Regional Tournament on Saturday, Feb. 23, in Danville.
The Highlanders outscored Yellville-Summit 12-2 down the stretch to pull off the improbable rally.
“It was a great comeback for us, one of those storybook comebacks,” Rambo said of the regional final.
Despite the loss to Marked Tree, the Highlanders had a tremendous season by any standards. Eureka Springs set a school record for victories, went 16-0 at home, won the regular-season conference championship and the district and regional tournament titles. The Highlanders also won 19 consecutive games before Tuesday’s loss. In six seasons as the Highlanders’ head coach, Rambo has had two seasons of at least 30 wins.
“I told my guys at the end of the game (Tuesday) that we didn’t want that game to define our season,” Rambo said. “We had an historic run. We won 19 games in a row at the most important time of the year. How many teams would like to just win 19 games, period? If you look at the entire body of work, I would put this basketball team up against any team in the history of our program.”