MANHATTAN — The Ringnecks have been prone to slow starts at times this year.
So when it happened Friday, the Hill City High School girls’ basketball team was in a familiar position.
Only problem was the Ringnecks were playing four-time defending champ Claflin-Central Plains in the Class 2A state semifinals.
And the Oilers proved to be too much for the Ringnecks to overcome in a 60-35 loss that dropped the team into Saturday’s third-place game.
“A lot of times we start out slow,” said Hill City coach Linda Nighswonger. “If you start out slow here in the state tournaments, it’s kind of trouble for you. We started out slow, then came storming back. Then it was just little things.”
Central Plains sophomore Emily Ryan, arguably the best player in 2A, converted a three-point play to open the game, only to see Hill City senior Conner Keith responded with a jumper of her own.
That would prove to be the closest the score came all game long.
Central Plains (25-0) pulled out to a 9-2 lead en route to a 22-12 advantage after the first quarter.
To compound the issue, Keith was whistled for two early fouls, then picked up her third with just more than three minutes to play in the half.
“We just couldn’t get an offensive look,” said Keith, who finished with six points but was limited to her normal offensive and defensive ability with the early fouls. “And our defense didn’t start off the best.”
Ryan dominated the first half, scoring 20 of her 29 points while leading Central Plains to a 38-23 advantage at halftime.
“We had a lot of momentum going into the half, and we find that huge, too,” said Ryan, who also had seven rebounds, five assists and four steals in the contest. “You don’t want to sit around for 10 minutes feeling bad about your performance. So we were able to feel good going into half.”
The Oilers shot 67 percent from the floor in the first half, while Hill City (21-4) shot only 36 percent — including a 2-of-12 performance from 3-point range.
“It was one of those things where I felt like we had a pretty good game plan,” Nighswonger said. “We just didn’t play very well early. Then we kind of locked in and do what he had hoped. Then we dropped off a bit. But (Ryan) makes you look silly sometimes and your plan not work. That’s the mark of a good player.”
The struggles continued in the third quarter for Hill City. Central Plains, which has won 81 in a row and is 127-1 since the 2013-14 season started the title run, pushed the margin to 21 late in the third quarter at 48-27 after a steal and layup by Ryan.
That propelled the Oilers to a 48-31 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“Ryan is a good player,” Nighswonger said. “Holy moly. Everybody wants one like her — a good leader on the court.”
A 7-0 spurt to start the fourth quarter diminished any hope of a Ringneck rally, giving Central Plains a 55-31 advantage — its largest of the game.
“We try to get a good start every night so we can play hard the rest of the night without too much pressure,” Ryan said. “We were able to come out hot, and that was a key to our success.”
Ryan was the only player to score in double figures for Central Plains and matched her 29-point outing in the opening round against Inman.
She also was a thorn in the side of the Ringnecks defensively, drawing Keith, who scored 23 in an overtime win Wednesday in the first round against Pittsburg-St. Mary’s/Colgan.
“She’s very long,” Nighswonger said. “And they do a good job of getting around screens and through screens. They did what they had to do.”
Hill City’s struggles shooting continued in the second half, as the Ringnecks shot only 27 percent for the game and made just 3 of 18 from long range.
“She’s a spectacular player, and we knew that coming into the game,” Ryan said about Keith. “So we were really focused on shutting her down. But they’re a great team, so we knew we had to play well on all of them.”
Senior Ellie Keener led Hill City with 11 points, and senior Lauren Jones added nine.
Valley Heights won the other semifinal, 63-59, over Olpe.