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Female Arkansas boys basketball head coach wins second state title

Former Arkansas State player Barbara Wilburn-Covington has been at Marked Tree for 33 years and won the school's previous title in 2001
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HOT SPRINGS, ARKANSAS - A year ago, after losing 46-44 to County Line in the Class 1A Arkansas state championship, Marked Tree High School boys basketball coach Barbara Wilburn-Covington vowed her team would be back in the final. 

Saturday, not only was her team back in the final, but they made sure they left with the championship trophy and was the last one into the interview room after the game.

Barbara Wilburn-Covington came to Marked Tree 33 years ago. (Photo by Tommy Land)

Barbara Wilburn-Covington came to Marked Tree 33 years ago. (Photo by Tommy Land)

That’s because Marked Tree (35-3) won 66-43 over Nevada (30-8) for their first state title since 2001 when it defeated Turrell for the Class 2A state title. The title was the sixth in school history. Marked Tree also won in 1998 and in 1946, 1948 and 1949.

“We started out last year, and we made the statement to be last to do this (referring to the postgame interview). I’m proud of this. We came back and did what we were supposed to do. We knew we had to get back,” said Wilburn-Covington, who has coached Marked Tree for 33 years and has seen her team go 65-7 over the past three years.

Based on the way her team played, Wilburn-Covington had every reason to be proud. Her team led for 29:14 in a game that featured one tie and four lead changes. Her team shot 53.1 percent from the floor (26-of-49), including 6-of-14 on three-pointers and 8-of-11 from the foul line. They held Nevada to 18-of-49 shooting, including 5-of-20 on three-pointers. They won the rebounding battle 33-25 and held a 34-18 lead in points in the paint and had 10 turnovers to Nevada’s 19 with nine steals. They held a 22-7 edge in points off turnovers.

“It was good game to watch. I thought we played defense really well,” said Wilburn-Covington.

Ladarrius Brown led the way with 20 points, 6 rebounds and 4 steals and was named MVP of the state finals. Kenyon Carter had 10 points with 5 rebounds and 2 assists. Jonah Walker had 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals.

While coaches try and prepare their team for what they’ll see on the basketball court, it’s a rewarding feeling when they see the things they preach come to fruition. Wilburn-Covington was proud to see her team play at a high level on the biggest stage.

“If you come to our practice, 98 percent of it is on defense. We make sure the intensity is higher than in a game situation. We keep that level of intensity very high. If you’re not going to play defense, you’re coming out,” said Wilburn-Covington.

Brown said the same attitude is true when it comes to rebounding.

“Coach always preaches the ball is the most important thing on the floor,” Brown said. “We run rebounding drills. The shot goes up and you have to get the rebound and the losing team has to run.”

Barbara Wilburn-Covington's teams stress defense and an ''old-school" approach. (Photo by Tommy Land

Barbara Wilburn-Covington's teams stress defense and an ''old-school" approach. (Photo by Tommy Land

Rebounding and defense is an old-school philosophy that has served Wilburn-Covington well and made it easier to preach to her players about what it takes to be successful and why she has lasted in the boys game for a long time. She said she coached girls for two years and said when you get on girls for something you didn’t like on the floor, she said girls would hold a grudge against you for the longest time. She said boys are more willing to accept the criticism and learn from it.

She said when playing high school ball at Forrest City and later at Arkansas State, she had to learn that fundamentals are important along with being able to accept criticism and given how long she has been coaching, it makes it easier for her players to buy in.

“I think sometimes I can look at them and they know what I want them to do, and they know what my expectations are,” said Wilburn-Covington.

After falling short a year ago along with a 81-62 loss to Earle in the 2017 Class 2A finals and a 69-52 loss to Earle in 2018, Wilburn-Covington said she has gained a greater appreciation for how hard it is to win a state title.

“I think it’s a different feeling,” said Wilburn-Covington. “The first one was the first one and that was great. I’m glad we got it. We’ve been here three times and to do the first interview wasn’t good.”

While falling short left a lot of motivation to come back and win a state title, Wilburn-Covington said it wasn’t hard to keep her team focused all year.

“They knew they wanted the feeling to know what it was like to be champions,” said Wilburn-Covington said. “There were some days when I had to get on them and they knew what we needed to do.They knew what it would take to get here. They did a great job.”

And with all five starters being juniors, Marked Tree has a chance to add to their trophy case, but Wilburn-Covington said it will be up to the players to make sure it happens.

“I didn’t score a basket or get a rebound, they did all of that. It’s up to them to set the bar,” said Wilburn-Covington.

--Jeff Halpern | @SBLiveArk