Northside holds off Greenwood for Tournament of Champions title

By Steve Andrews | Photo by Karen Schwartz

FORT SMITH — Although Fort Smith Northside is the defending girls 6A state basketball champion, many thought the reign would be over for the Lady Bears after the departure of last season’s senior class — notably, state player of the year and current Arkansas Razorback Jersey Wolfenbarger.

But as Wolfenbarger embarks on her freshman season in the SEC, her former team is yet to miss a beat.

Northside (9-0) got 20 points and 10 rebounds from senior Yonni Releford on Saturday night to extend its perfect streak with a 48-44 victory over Greenwood to capture the championship trophy of the Taco Bell Tournament of Champions, held at Southside High School gymnasium.

The tournament was dedicated to the memory of legendary coach Merrill Mankin, who passed away on Nov. 25 at the age of 68. Mankin led the Southside girls to two state championships, but after a brief retirement had returned to the bench to assist with the Northside girls team.

“This was really big for us, especially considering that we just lost Coach Mankin and wanted to win this championship for him,” said Releford, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “This whole tournament we have all been working hard together and I am very proud of the girls. They have helped me a lot and have been the reason I have been able to do some of the things I’ve done.”

Against Greenwood, the Lady Bears  shot out of the gate threatening a runaway, as freshman Erianna Gooden scored the first seven points of the game, including a 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game.

After sophomore Anna Trusty finally got the Lady Bulldogs on the board with a free throw, Northside senior Ashya Harris hit a long-range deuce to make it 9-1.

“We were able to get out to a little bit of a lead early, but we knew that once everything settled down that they would play us tough,” Northside coach Ricky Smith said. “It was a competitive game out there tonight, and I thought both teams played extremely hard.”

Greenwood finally started to heat up with a pair of triples by Megan Gray and Carley Sexton, before senior Mady Cartwright knocked down a pair of free throws to tie the score at 11-11 late in the first quarter. From there, it was neck and neck the rest of the way, with seven more ties and 10 lead-changes.

“They had some girls knocking down shots that were giving us some trouble,” Smith said. “But our girls continued to battle inside and came up with some big buckets.”

Gray sank four from beyond the arc in the second quarter, finishing 5-for-12 on the night. After a steal and layup by Trusty, Gray’s three made it 24-19 in favor of the Lady Bulldogs midway through the second quarter.

But it was Releford to the rescue for Northside, once again, canning a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then converting a conventional 3-point play with a layup and free throw, to tie the score at 27-27 at the intermission.

After another Releford putback and free throw gave Northside a 34-30 lead late in the third quarter, Greenwood finished on a 5-0 run after a triple from Sexton with 14 second on the clock, taking a 35-34 lead into the final stanza.

Abby Summitt drained a three from the wing with 4:54 left to give the Lady Bulldogs their final lead of the night, 44-43. Northside scored the game’s final five points.

Senior Khassidy Warr saved her best for last, scoring underneath to give the Lady Bears a 45-44 lead, then getting a crucial offensive rebound with 10 second remaining to secure the victory, Warr hit the final two free throws with 8 ticks left to ice the game away.

“That rebound by Khassidy was just huge for us there at the end,” said Smith. “But this group of girls just keeps battling ‘til the end.”

Gooden finished with 11 points, while Warr added 10 points and six rebounds. Gray paced Greenwood with 15, with Cartwright chipping in 11.

“Greenwood is a very talented team and hard to defend against, but we were able to make the plays down the stretch and come out on top,” Releford said. “A lot of people have doubted us, and they are still doubting us, but we are sticking together and making it work. I think as long as we keep working hard and building that unity, we will be very successful.”

 Tuttle (Okla.) 67, West Memphis 50

Tuttle had four players score in double-figures Saturday afternoon, as the Lady Tigers rolled past West Memphis, 67-50, in the Third Place Game of the Taco Bell Tournament of Champions.

Senior Storie Driver’s 17 points – including 5 of 8 from 3-point range, paced Tuttle, who jumped out to a 17-2 first-quarter lead and never looked back.

They extended the advantage to 32-11 by halftime.

Allie Rehl added 15 for the Lady Tigers, with Landry Allen putting up 12 and Hadley Periman chipping in 10.

Aniya Prive led the way for West Memphis with 17. Clemisha Prackett tallied 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Lady Blue Devils, with Janiyah Tucker netting 13.

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