By AUSTIN COLBERT
TOPEKA -- Last week, Hays High School boys' basketball coach Rick Keltner took his team to Washington Elementary School in Hays to talk to a group of fifth-graders.
During that visit, he introduced senior guard Lane Clark and pointed out how Clark had a knack for hitting game-winning shots and making clutch plays under pressure.
"I said ... 'We'd like him even if he missed them, but it's so much easier to like him when he makes them,' " Keltner said with a laugh. "And he came out and made them today. He's just one of my favorite kids of all time."
Clark lived up to Keltner's words once again on Wednesday in the opening round of the Class 5A state tournament, when his steal and free throws with 18.2 seconds to play lifted the Indians past seven seed Salina Central, 48-46, at the Kansas Expocentre.
The win moves Hays High (23-0), the tournament's No. 2 seed, into Friday's semifinals. The Indians will play three seed Topeka-Highland Park (22-1) at 8:15 p.m. Friday, after the Scots beat six seed Kansas City-Washington 73-47 on Wednesday.
For the second time this season, Salina Central (13-10) had the Indians dead to rights late in the game. In their first meeting on Feb. 11, the Mustangs held a 13-point second-half lead and let Hays High ferociously rally from eight points down with 3:02 to play in regulation and lost 51-50 in overtime.
In Wednesday's rematch, the Mustangs had a 46-40 lead with less than three minutes to play against an Indian offense struggling to score.
Then senior guard Jordan Windholz hit a 3-pointer with 2:45 to play, cutting that lead in half.
"When you look at the clock and realize your season is running down, you just got to dig deep and find something," Windholz said. "As soon as I hit it -- I was a little nervous for some reason, I have no idea why -- but when I hit that, my nerves let away and my team's nerves let away."
Windholz came back less than a minute later and hit another 3-pointer with 1:55 to play, tying the game at 46, the first time the Indians hadn't trailed in the game since leading 31-29 midway through the third quarter.
Central's plan from there was to hold for the last shot and managed to whittle more than a minute off the clock before Clark made the play of the game. He got a steal and was immediately fouled with 18.2 seconds to play.
The foul sent him to the foul line, where the team's best free-throw shooter by percentage calmly hit both shots to give the Indians a two-point lead.
"It's a great feeling being able to perform well in a pressure situation. Our last game I didn't shoot free throws very well," Clark said, referring to his 3 of 8 performance from the foul line in the Indians' sub-state championship game against Bishop Carroll on Friday.
"When they came back on offense, they just tried running the clock down. They wanted the last shot. And we wanted to win and had to take a risk. I tried to lock Treyton (Hines) up and I risked leaving him in the corner to steal the ball and it just ended up working out for us."
The Hays High defense stepped up again after Clark's free throws, holding Central freshman Brayden Neuschafer to a long and off-balance 3-point attempt at the buzzer that missed wide right.
The Indians needed the late-game dramatics after they lost a 24-15 first-half lead by being outscored 15-8 in the third quarter and trailed 35-34 heading to the fourth.
Windholz led all players with 16 points, going 5 for 9 from 3-point range. Junior Brady Werth and sophomore Isaiah Nunnery each had eight for Hays High. Clark finished with five points, his only field goal a 3-pointer in the third quarter.
"I thought we played nervous at times early. We had some uncharacteristic defensive lapses and some turnovers," Keltner said. "I'm really proud of our guys for making some big, big plays late when it looked bad."
RaShun Allen and Jordan McNelly each had 12 points to lead Central. The Mustangs made 8 of 16 3-point attempts, while Hays High made 7 of 17.
In the other half of the boys' 5A bracket, top seed Lansing (23-0) pulled away late to beat St. Thomas Aquinas (11-12), 68-57. Lansing will play five seed Wichita-Heights (19-4) Friday at 4:45 p.m. after the Falcons upset four seed Goddard-Eisenhower (21-2), 72-56.