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Smith Center captures first basketball title

By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

MANHATTAN -- Smith Center High School seniors Sydney Benoit and Alexis Ryan proved they had ice water running through their veins in the Class 2A girls' state championship game Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum.

And because of their performances, head coach Nick Linn shared the sensation when his squad ambushed him in the locker room and poured ice water over his head.

Benoit and Ryan lifted Smith Center past defending state champion Winchester-Jefferson County North in the Class 2A state championship game with a 63-55 win.

It was the first state title in basketball in Smith Center history on either the boys' or girls' sides.

"We finally crossed that hurdle in basketball -- girls or boys," Linn said. "We finally crossed that hurdle. Hopefully, it won't take 20-some years until it happens again."

Linn had his players grab water bottles after winning sub-state, so when his players headed to the locker room, they decided to ambush him when he stepped through the door.

"I wasn't ready for that today," Linn said. "I wasn't thinking of that, but it was worth it. It's a celebration, and it's just enjoyable. I'll get soaked every night if it's like that."

Benoit posted 25 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks -- all game highs. Ryan scored 23, her season high, and produced a game-high six steals en route to the victory.

"I was really excited," said Ryan about how it felt when she looked up and saw her team had a two-score lead with 30 seconds to go. "I had to hold my tears back and had to finish the game."

Benoit had a monster tournament, scoring in the 20s in all three games (20 in the first round, 28 in the semifinal and 25 in the final). She also tied the 2A tournament record for free throws made in a game in the semifinal, making 15 of 21, and came within three of the tournament record for free throws made, making 26 of 34.

"I just thought I need to go out there and do my best," Benoit said. "That's what I tried to do."

Smith Center won the state championship with its players playing big minutes.

The Lady Red did it in the sub-state tournament, and they continued that streak at state.

In the state title game, all five starters played 31 or more minutes. Ryan and senior guard Trenna Cox each played 32.

"I worried all last night that I've got to sub that we've got to kids in and out and rest them, and I didn't," Linn said. "Through sub-state and state for the most part, I didn't, and they dug down. They had more energy than I ever dreamt they would have."

Smith Center contained Jefferson County to 39.6 percent shooting. The Chargers' Jacee Kramer scored 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting.

"It was no gimmick," Linn said. "We worked our backsides off in a 2-3 zone so we always matched up on her and their other 3-point shooters. I thought we did a good job on them. (Kramer) did not have a career night."

Smith Center ran away with the lead midway through the second quarter, as Ryan sparked an 8-0 run that put the Lady Red up 21-13. Ryan scored 10 of her points in the second quarter and 19 in the second and third quarters combined.

Ryan said she was sparked when she got pulled in the first quarter. She struggled at first, committing a few turnovers and taking only one shot. She said Linn told her she needed to pick it up.

"Then I went in and started going," Ryan said.

Smith Center (24-2) led by as much as nine -- once late in the second quarter and again midway through the third quarter.

However, Jefferson County North (23-3) battled back, going on an 8-2 run to end the third quarter. The Chargers eventually tied the game at 42 with 7:06 to go in the fourth quarter.

From then on, it was battle, and the Lady Red won it, thanks largely to floor generals Ryan and Benoit. Benoit scored 14 points in the final six minutes.

Ryan added four points and two steals and grabbed a big offensive rebound, saving her own missed free throw from going out of bounds which allowed the Lady Red to go up by six points with 43 seconds to go.

In the final moments, Linn inserted senior forward Briana Dietz, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the regular season. She teared up as she watched her teammate, Cox, shoot free throws.

"It's just these kids digging down," Linn said. "I'm not even sure if we had the best team here. We had the most heart here, I think."