CONWAY — Northside’s Joe Dye admitted he used to get nervous in the waning moments of a close game with the outcome hinging on whether he sank his free shots from the line.
Saturday, Dye showed he has clearly overcome that doubt.
Dye scored a game-high 26 points, including five free throws in the final 27 seconds, to lift Northside past Van Buren, 60-54, and into the 7A State Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2007.
Dye missed the second of two free throws with Northside ahead by two points with 26.9 seconds left. Van Buren’s 6-foot-9 center Mitchell Smith was prepared to collect the rebound and send Van Buren down court with a chance to tie or take the lead. But Dye slipped in behind him, leaped and pulled the ball out of Smith’s reach. Dye ran to the corner and Van Buren, in a panic, fouled him again.
He didn’t miss again.
“(Coach Eric Burnett) kept putting pressure on me,” Dye said. “‘Get in the gym. Shoot free throws.’ Before state, we really didn’t practice. We shot free throws the whole week before the game. Just get up there and knock it down like a practice shot.”
Van Buren had erased a 51-44 Northside lead minutes earlier with consecutive 3-point plays by Smith. The Van Buren sophomore twice grabbed the rebound after a Pointers missed shot, went back up, made the layups and was fouled each time.
Dye had missed two free throws before that to give Van Buren the opportunity. And after Northside’s Jace Richardson and Smith exchanged layups, the Pointers trailed by one and were forced to foul.
“Out of the eight losses we have, I feel like we have lost maybe five games because of free throws,” Burnett said. “And we worked on that all week long. I think it paid off in crunch time.”
There were seven lead changes total and the teams were tied at 29 after the first half. After a 7-0 run to start the game, Northside never again built its lead larger than six points — thanks in large part to Smith’s dominance. He finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds and put Northside players in foul trouble most of the night.
Van Buren’s foul trouble, however, was an opening for the Grizzlies. The Pointers took their final lead on the first possession after halftime when Smith sank a nifty post jumper. Keyshawn Dorsey put Northside ahead for good with a 3-pointer two possessions later, immediately after Van Buren point guard Ryan Pearson picked up his fourth foul.
“Their pressure hurt us,” Van Buren coach Randy Loyd said. “We turned it over a few times. With the way they were jumping they took us out of our offense. We couldn’t run some sets we like to run. They made some runs, but we kept battling. I’ve been proud of them all year the way they come out and play. Extremely proud (Saturday night), too.”
Poor Northside 3-point shooting and Smith’s dominance kept Northside from building a lead larger than six points. The Grizzlies shot just 2-of-16 from 3-point range in the first half while Smith had 14 points and nine rebounds as the teams were tied at halftime at 29. Smith finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds. Pearson added 10 and Quashaun Kursh had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Freshman Tevin Brewer played in his first varsity game for Northside after helping lead Kimmons Junior High to an undefeated season. He made a pair of free throws in the final 90 seconds that turned Northside’s 51-50 lead to three-point advantage.
The Grizzlies also played without usual starters T.J. Whitmore and Chris Eckes. The two sat in street clothes nursing ankle injuries suffered minutes apart in practice earlier this week. Burnett said he’s hoping Whitmore will be able to return Monday against Springdale, but Eckes’ injury is wait-and-see.
Richardson also finished in double figures for Northside with 10 points. He was part of the team last year that lost to Bentonville in the quarterfinals after the Grizzlies had skipped the first with a bye. It was a game Richardson and Burnett both called “embarrassing.”
“I feel like we had to redeem ourselves this year,” Richardson said. “We were very focused. Matter of fact, after the Van Buren game (Friday night), me and Joe looked at each other and told each other ‘it’s time to focus.’ This morning we were prepared.”
Burnett acknowledged the psychological impact of Saturday’s win.
“There is a weight lifted off.”