LITTLE ROCK - Two juniors that the University of Arkansas has a vested interest in will next take the floor as Arkansas Hawks.
That's because South top seed Pine Bluff rallied to down West fourth seed Springdale Har-Ber 65-58 Tuesday afternoon in the Class AAAAA state basketball tournament at the Jack Stephens Center.
Michael Sanchez, a 6-8, 220-pound post that the Razorbacks and numerous other teams have offered, had a game-high 27 points and 12 rebounds while 6-5 shooter Nate Rakestraw, who Arkansas has a conditional offer out to, bombed in 4 3-pointers and finished with 12 points.
"This just pretty much cuts off what we had been working for starting back in August, every 6 a.m. workout, it's just so tough to lose like that," Sanchez said. "But we just have to go back, work harder and come back and have a great season next year."
Sanchez averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds per game this season for Har-Ber (13-13) in the school's first year of existence and a for a team with just one senior on its roster while Rakestraw - who has been invited to the Adidas ABCD Camp as has Sanchez - averaged 13 per game.
Along the way, Sanchez - who got a Razorback offer before his sophomore season - gathered plenty of scholarship offers.
"I now have offers from Arkansas, Maryland, Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Oklahoma North Carolina State, Baylor and Tennessee," Sanchez said. "But none of that really matters right now because this loss just hurts."
Har-Ber led 31-29 at the half and had pushed that to 43-38 when lone senior Aaron McHenry buried a 3-pointer with 2:50 left in the third quarter and had a chance to increase that margin.
But Pine Bluff (21-5) forced three straight turnovers went on a 13-0 run that was capped when Gabriel Hobbs scored inside to put the Zebras up 51-43 with 5:56 left in the game.
Har-Ber responded to that with a 12-2 run that includes 7 points by Sanchez and culminated with a pair of free throws from him that surged Har-Ber to a 55-53 lead with just over two minutes left in the game.
However, Pine Bluff then closed out the game on a 12-2 run to move on to play in the quarterfinals on Thursday night at 8:30 against either Little Rock Hall or Jacksonville.
The Wildcats finished the season with some big wins and several tough losses, including one-point defeats to co-conference champs Fayetteville and Rogers.
"We got a lot of experience this season and we have just one senior, the rest are juniors and they are all coming back," Burnett said. "To be there - and nobody blew us out - but to be there and have a chance to win every ballgame, I don't think can do nothing but help us. Next year we won't make the bonehead mistakes like we did in the third quarter of this game."
Rakestraw's conditional offer to Arkansas would have him walking on as a true freshman in 2007-2008 and then being on scholarship beginning with the 2008-2009 season when the Razorbacks could have as many as seven scholarships available.
He is also drawing interest from Missouri State, Stanford, UALR, TCU, ORU and Tulsa.
"I need to continue to work on my jump shot, getting stronger and just improving my all-around game," Rakestraw said.
Sanchez, Rakestraw and McHenry will all play for the Hawks this summer, including in the Real Deal on the Hill AAU event in Fayetteville on April 14-16.
"It will be us three, Anthony Allison, maybe Kodi Burns and Anthony Brock and some other guys down here in Little Rock," Rakestraw said. "We should be pretty good."
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