Willis Relishing Next Big Challenge

Fayetteville's Payton Willis will be among four of the state's top juniors on display Monday at the Class 7A state basketball tournament at Springdale Har-Ber when Bentonville and Van Buren meet at 2 p.m. and the Purple Bulldogs battle North Little Rock at 5 p.m.

SPRINGDALE - Fayetteville junior guard Payton Willis has always seemed to relish challenges and he’ll get one of the biggest of his career on Monday at the Class 7A State Basketball Tournament.

That’s when Willis - who had a game-high 17 points in his team’s 58-50 win over Rogers Heritage on Monday - will lead his team against two-time defending state champion North Little Rock at 5 p.m. at Springdale Har-Ber.

Willis - who has an offer from Mississippi State and interest from Arkansas and Belmont among others - had 23 points while matched up with Bentonville’s Malik Monk in the Purple Bulldogs’ 72-59 win on Monday.

“He’s the the type of kid that raises his level of play against the best players and that is what he will do against (North Little Rock guard and Florida commit) KeVaughn (Allen) on Monday,” Fayetteville head coach Kyle Adams said.

“He loves the challenge against somebody like that - a Malik or a KeVaughn or somebody like that,” Adams added.

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd was on hand to see Willis play Sunday just a day after his team clinched a berth in the NCAA Tournament by downing Murray State in the OVC Tournament Championship game.

The Bruins got 16 points from former Bentonville standout and current sophomore Nick Smith in that win.

“Mississippi State has been the only one that has offered him yet, but there are a lot of schools talking to him and watching him play,” Adams said.

“Arkansas and (head coach) Mike (Anderson) have talked to me about him and they like him, but no other so far,” Adams said. “I think they are waiting to see how he does over the spring and summer.”

That’s when Willis - averaging 17 points per game this season - will be playing AAU basketball for the Arkansas Wings alongside Monk and Van Buren forward Mitchell Smith (6-10, 210) - two juniors that the Razorbacks have offered.

The Wings squad is also expected to include Pulaski Academy’s Lawson Korita and Southwest Christian Academy’s Tyrik Dixon and Eric Curry among others.

“Those guys (Monk and Willis) are special players,” Adams said. “God gifted Malik so much - I have never seen a high school kid jump like that - and Payton works extremely hard just as Malik does and thinks the game just as well as anybody does that I have coached in 30 years.”

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Bentonville and Van Buren will meet at 2 p.m. in the first boys semifinal of the day.

Smith had a massive Saturday night game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and 4 blocks as Van Buren beat Fort Smith Northside 68-61.

Monk had 28 as Bentonville took down Springdale 64-54.

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Allen had 22 of his 26 points in the second half, Ohio State football signee K.J. Hill added 18 and junior Adrian Moore chipped in 10 as North Little Rock beat Springdale Har-Ber 58-50 in Sunday’s final game.

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