Craig Neumeier couldn't have asked for a better gift than what his Bigelow Panthers gave him Tuesday night in his return to the sidelines.
The longtime coach watched as his team used a hot-shooting second half to pull away and beat Maumelle Charter 72-53 at Eagle Gymnasium.
Senior forward Nic Orr scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Panthers (12-5, 10-3 2A-5), whose run of six victories in a row has pushed them to the top of the conference standings. Bigelow has also won seven of its last eight to snatch first place from Maumelle Charter.
The Panthers, who led 36-27 at halftime, knocked down 16 of 23 (69.5%) shots over the final two quarters to steadily pull away. Bigelow eventually finished 30-of-45 (66.6%) shooting for the game and held a 31-24 rebounding edge.
About the only thing the Panthers didn't do well was hold on to the ball consistently, as evidenced by their 18 turnovers. But with the way they were shooting, combined with how they were limiting the Falcons' second-chance opportunities, ball security became moot.
"That game was probably one of the best we've played all season," said Neumeier, who was forced to miss four games last week because of covid-19 quarantining. "That's the kind of game we've been looking for. To be honest, we've been playing pretty good now for two weeks, and that performance showed it."
Sophomore forward Javon Orr had 16 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks, while senior guard Kimbrow Harrell had 14 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals for the Panthers. Junior guard Ethan Hall added 10 points.
"The Orr boys, Javon and Nic, were huge for us," Neumeier explained. "And then our guard play with Ethan and Kimbrow, they were great. It was just really good effort all around against a really good team."
Junior guard Caleb Ross had a team-high 15 points for Maumelle Charter (13-5, 9-3), which saw its odds of winning for the 11th time in 12 games take a hit after a rough shooting second quarter.
The Falcons trailed 9-0 in the opening quarter but clawed its way back and led 18-16 after a basket from junior forward Jalen Turner shortly before the end of the period. But Maumelle Charter hit just 2 of its 17 baskets in the second, leading to its nine-point hole at the half.
The Panthers, who had lost three of the previous four meetings with the Falcons, began to distance themselves immediately after the break. A Harrell lay-up ignited a 13-3 run for Bigelow, which had built a 49-30 edge by the 3:36 mark of the third quarter.
Maumelle Charter did slice into its deficit midway through the fourth, when a pair of free throws from Turner with 4:25 left drew his team within 60-46. A rebound basket from Nic Orr started a quick 6-0 flurry that quickly extinguished the Falcons' rally.
"It's fun when everyone is contributing," Neumeier said. "We had a bunch of guys that didn't score a lot, but they contributed on the defensive end. [Maumelle Charter] is a very good team, they're quick and always give us a battle when we play.
"We didn't take care of the ball the way we should've in the fourth quarter because we were playing too fast, but that's probably better than playing slow and not getting shots off. We'll see [Maumelle Charter] again on Monday so we're going to enjoy this one for now."
BIGELOW 66, MAUMELLE CHARTER 18
A 16-2 run in the first quarter helped the Lady Panthers establish a huge lead that they parlayed into an easy victory.
Senior guard Jill Nutt scored 20 of her game-high 22 points over the game's first 10 minutes as Bigelow (16-5, 13-0 2A-5), ranked No. 4 in Class 2A, won its 10th game in a row. Junior forward Allison Weaver had eight points and sophomore forward Aubrey Evans added 7 points, 8 rebounds and 6 steals for the Lady Panthers.
Senior forward Sydney Conway had 10 points for Maumelle Charter (1-14, 1-10), which trailed 48-10 at halftime.