Thursday night’s anticipated battle between Helena-West Helena Central and Stuttgart lived up to the hype and more as the Cougars avenged their only loss of the season, 63-58. Stuttgart battled to the end but Helena had far too many weapons on this night.
From the tip it was clear that the fans assembled in the Birdcage would be getting their money's worth. Neither Helena nor Stuttgart held more than a nine point lead all night and for most of the second half the game seesawed between the southeast Arkansas teams.
The Cougars held a one point lead at the end of the first quarter at 15-14 on the shoulders of very balanced scoring. Demond Franklin notched five points off the bench in the period while Jake Banks led the Ricebirds with seven.
The second quarter would become a free throw shooting contest. While the first period was played relatively quickly and whistle free, the officials began to tighten up the action. The Cougars would finish the period 5-6 from the free throw line but the Ricebirds would convert on 11 of their 14 opportunities. This performance from the charity stripe allowed Stuttgart to hold a 34-31 lead at the half time break.
Demond Franklin continued strong play in the second period, finishing the first half with nine points. Stuttgart’s scoring was balanced with five Ricebirds getting in the scoring column led by Banks’ seven.
At the 6:05 mark of the third quarter, Helena claimed a one point lead. From that point until late in regulation neither team would hold greater than a one possession advantage. The Cougars would finally break that statistic by spurting to a nine point advantage with under one minute to play in the game.
Stuttgart’s lack of depth and poor shooting became apparent Thursday night as the Ricebirds continued to use their typical seven man rotation. Helena countered with ten different players touching the floor. The game’s leading scorer, Demond Franklin, came off of the bench for the Cougars and torched the Ricebirds for 23 points.
Further complicating Stuttgart’s recent struggles are how teams are defending David Walker. Refusing to allow the junior looks in the lane, Walker is finding his best scoring opportunities coming from beyond the three point arc. On Thursday night Walker was ice cold, hitting only one of seven three point shots.
Whether it was fatigue or simply the better team making their move, the fourth quarter saw Helena outscore Stuttgart 19-13 to seal the win.
Where the first half saw a combined 24 free throws shot, the second half witnessed five, all of which came in the game’s final 90 seconds. Stuttgart did not attempt a second half free throw.
Aside from Demond Franklin, Helena received 11 points from Michael Boone and 10 from Jackson. Stuttgart countered with a team high 17 points for Timquorian Johnson. Jake Banks added 13 while David Walker finished with 11. Davion Graham notched his second double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Helena has positioned themselves to be the number one seed in the upcoming 4A-2 conference tournament. If the Cougars finish the regular season slate with a lone blemish to Stuttgart on their resume it will be hard to give a good reason why the Cougars are not number one. Baptist Prep and Southside will both likely have one blended league loss as well but both of those squads have lost five and four games in their overall schedule. With the blended schedule however, there is no way to know for sure.
Stuttgart now finds themselves in something of a tailspin after an 0-2 week. Once thought to be at worst a top two team in the league, the Ricebirds are now clinging to the tournament’s fourth seed. A fourth place finish will likely mean the Ricebirds play tournament host Riverview in the opening round.