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Missouri Tigers football signee Courtney Crutchfield helps Pine Bluff (Arkansas) to back-to-back basketball titles

The win avenged two conference losses to Benton

HOT SPRINGS — Courtney Crutchfield might have turned some Arkansas Razorback fans off when he switched his football commitment to SEC rival Missouri in December, but he made one thing for sure: He’s proud to be a Pine Bluff Zebra who played on consecutive Class 5A state championship boys basketball teams. 

Crutchfield was named MVP of Friday’s 68-63 victory over Benton (29-5) when he finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds.

While some might not have blamed Crutchfield for not playing basketball after he signed in December and after enduring an ankle injury in a 71-50 victory over White Hall on Feb. 6, Crutchfield felt it was important to come back and help his team win acnother state title.

Pine Bluff's Courtney Crutchfield took MVP honors in the Class 5A state title game against Benton on Friday. (Photo by Tommy Land)

Pine Bluff's Courtney Crutchfield took MVP honors in the Class 5A state title game against Benton on Friday. (Photo by Tommy Land)

“I know I committed to the University of Missouri, but I feel I had unfinished business since I was young and I knew I could have gone to college early and played, but I feel I needed to come back and play one more time with my guys. After this, there is no more playing together,” said Crutchfield.

While Crutchfield was out, the Zebras (24-6) went 3-1 with the only loss being a 59-50 loss to Benton on Feb. 9. While Crutchfield was out, head coach Billy Dixon made it clear to his team that he didn’t want his team using Crutchfield’s absence as an excuse.

“I think these guys do what we’ve developed and when I said we can win without ‘Crutch’, I believed that. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. Those guys did what they’re trained and developed to do. We have a great program. It’s not about one person, ‘Crutch’ brings an enormous presence. We have some words back and forth, but that is supposed to happen when you are the coach,” said Dixon.

While Crutchfield was out, he helped send the same message to his teammates. “I came back at the start of playoffs. When I was out, I told them when I wanted them to go out and get a victory and they came out of their shell to get a victory,” he said.

When Crutchfield returned, he said it felt good to be back on the court and help his team beat Van Buren 53-50; Jacksonville 68-4 and Lake Hamilton 85-82 in double overtime to help get the Zebras back to Bank OZK Arena for the state finals and when he was back, he made sure his team could avenge two 5A-South Conference losses to Benton.

Crutchfield, who hit a buzzer-beater three to force overtime against Lake Hamilton, caught the attention of Benton head coach Dexter Hendrix, who said his team had trouble communicating on defense when foul trouble forced his team to have make adjustments. Hendrix said the lack of communication allowed Crutchfield to get loose at times.

In addition to Benton’s Terrion Burgess fouling out with 12.4 seconds left, Benton lost A.D. Gray with 3:48 left. Javarious Russell, Elem Shelby and Harrison Pickett finished the game with four fouls.

The game featured two marquee players in Crutchfield and Burgess, a 6-9 forward who is a four-star junior prospect who has at least 18 college offers including Alabama, Memphis, Missouri, Ole Miss, TCU, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Auburn and Arizona State.

Burgess finished with 27 points and 6 rebounds but spent much of the second half in foul trouble. He sat out the final 1:40 of the first half after picking up his third foul when the Zebras cut a 35-21 deficit to 37-32 at halftime before tying it at 37-37 early in the third quarter. He picked up his fourth foul with 6:46 left and only scored four points the rest of the way before fouling out with 12.4 seconds left.

While Crutchfield didn’t draw the assignment of defending Burgess, he said winning consecutive state titles was what meant most, regardless of who was on the other side of the floor.

While Burgess battled foul trouble, Dixon said his plan was to try and make sure Burgess had to give up the ball as much as possible.

"More than any game I can recall, we ran eighth or nine defensive schemes. Not in a disrespectful way, but we worked him enough to make him give up the basketball. They stayed locked in and we made changes at halftime. We felt we were not Pine Bluff the whole first half. We went down five at the half and I told them we were still in it. To be down five after behind down 14, we were in a good position,” said Dixon.

Hendrix said, “Terrion is obviously very important for our team. We knew foul trouble was going to be a factor. We knew that was going to be a part of the game. That stretch in the first half gave them some momentum. When A.D. Gray fouled out (six points and six rebounds), it hurt our rebounding and inside game. Foul trouble was definitely a factor and we tried to manage it the best we can.”

While Benton looked back on a game, they led for 19:55 and lost, Pine Bluff was able to celebrate winning consecutive state championships for the first time since 1933-1935.

“I want the legacy to be 2024 as the best class to come through. I can say we’re all family. I’ve enjoyed my four years. I’ll always be a Zebra,” said Crutchfield. They ain’t won back-to-back since 1930s. It’s going to be a great feeling when we get back.”

--Jeff Halpern | @SBLiveArk