Ellis claims girls' MCL title
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Smith Center High School girls’ basketball team had won 30 straight regular season contests and six consecutive games at the Mid-Continent League tournament, including last year’s title. No current Ellis player had even defeated the Lady Red.
Veteran Railroader coach Perry Mick knew he would approach Saturday’s MCL tournament championship game in vintage Ellis fashion: an up-tempo, fast breaking style.
“I tell you what, I am not real smart about how to do some of this stuff, but if we can outrun people, we are just going to do it,” Mick said.
Ellis, led by senior guard Bailey Hensley and freshman Alexcia Deutscher, forced Smith Center into foul trouble and miscues late, and eventually pulled off a 73-63 overtime victory in a frenetic, highly-entertaining contest at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“We talk all the time about not going into these things being scared or being timid or that no matter how good or bad we are, and I think we played hard, and it just a nice effort,” Mick said.
Ellis, ranked No. 7 in Class 2A, improved to 12-1, while fourth-ranked Smith Center dropped to 10-1. It was the Railers’ first tournament title since 2007 and fifth all-time, tied with Osborne for second-most.
Smith Center had three players foul out, seniors Alexis Ryan, Sydney Benoit and Trenna Cox. Benoit and Cox, Smith Center’s top two players, combined for 22 points, 14 from Benoit, seven below her season average.
“My leadership, my upperclassmen, did not play well tonight,” Smith Center coach Nick Linn said. “We played hard. There is a difference between playing well and playing hard. We played hard, and I thought if we just played fundamentally sound, then we would be fine. We didn’t play fundamentally sound.”
Smith Center had 37 turnovers, 22 more than the Railers. The Railers had a 46-13 advantage from the free throw line. Ellis’ victory was the first win against the Lady Red since Feb. 6, 2009.
“Smith Center has been a team that we have been wanting to beat for a really long time,” Hensley said. “We knew that we could do it, and we went out there and we did it.”
Hensley tallied a career-high 28 points, including 16 of 21 from the free throw line in a performance she labeled the best of her career.
“We cannot let her drive and then trail like we did so many times tonight,” Linn said. “We’ve got to defend her.”
Deutscher has scored in double figures every game this season and finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds despite fighting illness.
“It’s just been an amazing feeling,” said Hensley, a four-year starter. “We have been working for this for a really long time, and it’s just crazy.”
No team had a double-figure lead until overtime. Benoit, who was also in foul trouble in Friday’s semifinal win against Norton, collected her fourth foul with 1 minute, 33 seconds left in the third quarter and the game tied at 40.
She left the game and didn’t return until 5:57 remained in regulation. Ellis, helped by four free throws from Hensley and a basket from Deutscher, built a 51-46 lead when Benoit on the bench.
“Bailey is a really quick girl, and she is not necessarily a scorer, because she doesn’t make jump shots,” Mick said. “Everything she does is off hustle and free throws. To get 28 points off hustle, that’s saying something for the way she played tonight.”
Smith Center, backed by 25 points and 13 rebounds from junior Colbie Decker, came back to tie the game at 55 with 2:10 left.
The teams exchanged baskets and Smith Center had a chance to take the lead, but turned the ball over with 30 seconds remaining when the ball went through Benoit’s hands. Ellis had a chance in the final seconds, but couldn’t convert.
“We haven’t been doing that so much and today, we did it,” Linn said. “It kind of reared it’s ugly head today, and I told the kids I am so proud of their hard work, but I am really disappointed with how they played fundamentally.
“I didn’t tell them, ‘When we play them again, it’s going to be different,’” he added. “No. We have to get better tomorrow and we have to build from that.”
In the overtime, Ellis scored the first six points. Deutscher collected a steal and passed it to sophomore Sarah Mick, who found Deutscher for the basket. Then, senior Megan Honas sunk a trey – her only field goal of the game. With 51.5 seconds left, Benoit went for a steal on the perimeter and committed her fifth foul when she bumped Honas. A few seconds later, Cox also fouled out.
“In any big game, role players have to come out and contribute,” Mick said. “…Sydney Benoit, she is the best player in the league, there is no doubt, she has got a great jump shot, but tonight, I think our depth is what helped us.”
In the final seconds, Ellis collected a steal and Hensley found herself wide-open under the basket. Instead of holding the ball, she dribbled in and scored, a fitting ending. As the buzzer sounded, Ellis celebrated and a smiling Deutscher immediately ran over to Hensley and hugged her teammate.
“When I went into the locker room, all I could say was, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I just was in shock, I think,” Hensley said.