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— Two-time All-State pick Ariel Billington decided this summer she would miss basketball in college.

But it wasn't too late to find somewhere to play.

The recent Pea Ridge graduate signed a scholarship July 22 to play basketball for Panola Junior College in Carthage, Texas.

"I had pretty much decided I wasn't going to play and I was just going to go to Arkansas Tech and not play basketball there," Billington said. "But then after a while I decided I missed it and wanted to play. And that's about the time when they had contacted my coach."

An assistant coach at Panola - a two-year college and a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association's Region XIV - found Billington's season stats online in June and contacted coach Heather Wade about her three-year starter.

Billington averaged 14.5 points and six rebounds during her senior year as the Lady Blackhawks (15-14) advanced to the Class 4A State Tournament.

She had 23 points in an upset over Huntsville at the 4A North Regional tournament as Pea Ridge earned the No. 2 seed to the state tournament. At the state tournament, she had 14 points in the first-round loss to Waldron at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

Billington and three other seniors helped the Lady Blackhawks to back-to-backpostseason appearances - including the first in 19 years - after playing together throughout their high school careers.

"It was awesome," Billington said of her senior season. "The girls I played with, I played with since the third grade. We were all really close."

"Our last two years were really good. It just kind of capped off our whole career together."

Panola head coach Tracey Stellato, who is entering her eighth year with the Fillies, expects more good years from Billington.

"I anticipate Ariel being a huge part of the team's success," said Stellato.

"She is a very fundamental and sound basketball player and we are very excited about the opportunity for her as well as for us."

The Fillies, who won NJCAA national titles in 1977 and 1978, have been to the NJCAA Regional Tournament five times and the National Tournament once under Stellato.

Billington, daughter of Starla and Mike Billington of Pea Ridge, is a 2009 graduate of Pea Ridge High School.

Sports, Pages 8 on 07/29/2009

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