Indians face rematch in 5A first round
By AUSTIN COLBERT
In 22 games this season -- all wins -- the Hays High School boys' basketball team has only had seven teams stay within single digits by the final buzzer.
Of those seven, two of the wins came by a single point, the first a 46-45 win at Junction City on Dec. 17. The second came on Feb. 11 at Salina Central, a 51-50 overtime victory that saw the Indians overcome a 13-point deficit early in the second half in what was arguably their worst first half all season.
"We weren't really playing our game," Hays High senior guard Kyler Niernberger said. "We weren't looking inside. We were taking our own shots and not playing our kind of basketball. And it showed when we were losing at half."
It took an inspired second half from junior forward Brady Werth, who finished with 12 points against Central after not scoring in the first half, to rally from its largest deficit of the season. The Indians still trailed 44-36 with 3:02 to play in regulation before a flurry of turnovers over the final 90 seconds led to easy Hays High baskets and overtime.
The game-winning bucket was made by senior guard Lane Clark with 15 seconds to go, and a strong defensive stand closed out the game. A game Central feels it had in the bag.
"We did play them well, but we didn't have the discipline to finish," Central coach Doug Finch said. "I'm disappointed in that. We had our chances. It's going to be an exciting rematch and we will see if maybe we can hang with them this time a little bit better in crunch time."
That rematch will come on Wednesday, when the two teams meet in the first round of the Class 5A state tournament at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m.
It is the second consecutive year Hays High has made the state tournament and sixth in 29 years under coach Rick Keltner. The Indians lost 59-42 to eventual state runner-up Lansing in the opening round last year.
Hays High (22-0) is the tournament's No. 2 seed this season after losing a coin flip to No. 1 seed Lansing, which is also 22-0 this season. Had the coin landed the other way, the Indians would have been the top seed and faced off with eight seed St. Thomas Aquinas (11-11) in the first round. As it is, the Indians will have to settle with a quarterfinal opponent they know all too well.
"I think they are going to be like, 'Hey, we only lost to these guys by one. We should have beat them. We shouldn't have lost that game,' " said Hays High senior guard Jordan Windholz, who led the Indians with 17 points in their first meeting with Central. "Going into this we know we are going to give them an even better shot and show them the team we really are. We are going to do what we do and play Hays High basketball."
The players all blamed a rusty first half against Central on a long layoff. After a snowstorm postponed the Indians' Feb. 4 game against Salina South to later in the month, it left a 12-day gap between games heading into their contest with Central.
By halftime, Central led 27-16 after holding Hays High to two points in the second quarter.
Central (13-9) is the No. 7 seed in this week's tournament. The Mustangs have faced as rigorous a schedule as anyone in the state this season, and had to battle past rival Salina South (57-48) and a 14-win Andover team (62-60 in overtime) in their sub-state.
"When you go through adversity during the regular season and survive sub-state, we obviously have a different bounce in our step and are a very confident team right now, knowing they can play with anybody," Finch said. "If you go 22-0 you are a great team and you are well-coached. We certainly know we have our hands full."
The winner of Wednesday's Hays High-Salina Central game will move on to Friday's semifinal against the winner of No. 3 seed Topeka-Highland Park (21-1) and six seed Kansas City-Washington (17-5). The other quarterfinal matchup on Wednesday features four seed Goddard-Eisenhower (21-1) against five seed Wichita Heights (18-4). The winner of that game will play either Lansing or St. Thomas Aquinas on Friday.