PLAINVILLE — Nerves ran through Joe Hertel as Thomas More Prep-Marian’s bus left Hays on Friday afternoon for a half-hour bus ride to Plainville High School.

With the Monarchs boys’ basketball team taking on a Hill City team looking to avenge an early-season loss, TMP’s head coach was unsure how his team might respond to its toughest game in a matter of weeks.

“Coming into this game, I was worried about how we would be because I feel like competition-wise we’ve been on a two-and-a-half week vacation,” Hertel said. “We knew we were gonna have to step it up to match the increase in competition.

“I think I can confidently say that we did take some steps upward and played pretty well.”

His assessment does the Monarchs’ 55-28 throttling of the Ringnecks in the Mid-Continent League Tournament semifinals proper justice. Behind a dominating 25-point, 11-rebound performance by 6-foot-7 senior Jared Vitztum, the Monarchs led wire-to-wire and left not a single soil in attendance questioning which was the better team Friday night.

“There’s no question it’s our best win since probably the other time we played Hill City,” Hertel said. “I was really proud of the way the guys stepped up and played defense, unbelievable defense, to hold a good team to 11 points at half. If they don’t knock down some long balls, which were basically what I would say ‘waving the white flag’ shots — if they don’t make three or four or five … we’re talking about holding them into the teens. The defensive effort was awesome.”

The 2014-15 MCL slate was one blemish away from perfection for TMP — a 49-47 road loss to the Ringnecks. The Monarchs got payback with a 62-47 home victory Dec. 11.

From the opening tip, it was aware who was in control of the rubber match.

After falling behind 6-0 and remaining scoreless for the nearly four minutes, Hill City head coach Keith Riley called a timeout with obvious intention of getting junior Claiborne Kyles a shot at the basket. Two possessions later, Kyles came free from an off-ball screen and drilled his signature jumper from the top of the paint. The only other Ringneck basket in the corner came off a Kyles steal and dribble between the legs before turning the corner to bank in a layup.

Even with Hill City’s statistical leader looking to lift his team, TMP held a 10-4 edge after one.

In the second quarter, the offensive frustration of Hill City played into TMP’s hand. On multiple occasions a Ringneck ball-handler drove into the paint, only to be met by Vitztum or Ryan Ruder, who combined to draw a handful of charges on the evening.

“We upped our game tonight, and that’s a sign of it,” Hertel said of his team, Ruder in particular, drawing charges. “You’ve got a kid there that’s pretty slight of body and he’s basically giving it up for the team. I’m real proud of that because the guys know that I basically encourage them to have courage and get your body in good defensive position and let what happens happen.”

Seeing his team make repeated mistakes frustrated Riley.

“We drove too deep too many times with Vitztum in there at 6-7,” Riley said. “We kept going inside there when we should have pulled up and shot the short jump shot. We’ve got kids who can shoot it but they kept thinking they can keep taking it to the basket.”

In the meantime, Vitztum was in the midst of opening the quarter on a 7-0 run by himself to push his first-half total to 11 points. Kyles thwarted the scoreless stretch with a stepback trey in the corner.

Mekhai Bates later picked up a basket of his own to reduce the deficit to 17-9. It was the only time Hill City scored consecutive baskets without a TMP score. Kyles reeled in nine first-half points of his own, but TMP doubled up Hill City, 22-11, at the break.

Though the separation at halftime could make for a manageable comeback, the Monarchs put all thoughts of one to rest with an 8-0 run to start the second half. Kyles hit another corner 3-pointer to end the drought only for Vitztum to work for two more baskets inside to keep the Ringnecks doubled up, 34-17.

Just as he had earlier in the quarter, Vitztum scored the final points of the third by snagging an offensive rebound and hitting a fall-away layup through contact for an and-one. The three-point play boosted his total to 23 and exemplified Hertel’s pleasure in his second-half offense.

“I thought our relentless attack of the offensive boards, particularly in the second half, was really the difference in the ballgame for us, offensively,” Hertel said.

The onslaught continued in the fourth. From tough baskets inside to layups in transition to deep jumpers, the Monarchs scored 14 more points all while allowing eight to a Ringneck team heaving up desperation shots.

The execution and sound play on the defensive end led to allowing the fewest points since a matchup with Trego Jan. 13, 2015, when TMP allowed just 22. For a man with a scrapbook of basketball memories in his mind, Friday’s stalwart performance is one that sticks out to Hertel.

“I can’t remember my wife’s birthday, I don’t remember what I did last week on the weekend, but I remember what happens during a basketball game,” he said. “I can’t remember but maybe one or two — and I’m talking I’m pickier than ever — defensive errors in the entire game and it showed, and the scoreboard proved it. I’m really proud of that.”

The second-seeded Monarchs now face the top-seeded Norton Bluejays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday for the right to claim back-to-back MCL Tournament crowns, a feat never accomplished by TMP.

“That’s the way it should be,” Hertel said. “I know it’s gonna be a tough game. There’s a reason why they’re always good in football and they’ve got some good basketball players, as well. It’s not gonna be easy.”

Norton boys 55, Plainville 43

Doug Reusink entered the Norton Bluejays locker room at halftime of Friday’s MCL Tournament semifinal matchup with Plainville and asked two things of his team.

Facing a 26-19 deficit, the Norton head coach ordered a focus on defensive fundamentals and a more patient, strategic approach on the offensive end.

“We talked about two things at halftime; one was playing better defensively and helping each other out, getting up on shooters, just basic, fundamental defense,” Reusink said. “Offensively, we talked about being more patient, trying to get the ball into the paint more. We hit threes throughout the game, but the first half we were kinda living out there.”

The result came in the form of a 14-0 run to flip an eight-point deficit into a six-point advantage in the midst of the third quarter. Norton responded to Reusink’s request by pushing four players into double-digit point totals en route to a 55-43 victory in the semifinals of the Mid-Continent League Tournament on Friday in Plainville.

Plainville’s Hayden Friend, whose skills dazzle fans on the track, football field and basketball court, led the Cardinals to a 14-9 lead in the first quarter with seven points. After bursting through the paint for a contested layup, Friend’s top-end speed led to a basket in transition. Minutes later, he broke open in the fast-break and pulled up from beyond the arc, forcing Norton into a timeout.

The Bluejays’ Tyus Henson, who had lit up the scoreboard for an average of 18 points per game in his last three outings, scored six of his 12 points in that 14-0 span to put Norton ahead 34-28. But with a third foul in his pocket, Henson rescinded to the bench.

The Bluejays boast four players who average in double figures — Henson, Jace Ruder, Landon Porter and Quinton Porter. While Ruder earned his 10 points and 10 boards throughout the game, each of the other three were leaned on in some capacity during stretches of the game.

“It’s real nice because everybody’s bound to have a bad game,” Henson said. “You know you can rely on everybody else. Landon’s been a great shooter, Quinton’s stepped up to the plate, Jace has always been dominant down in the post. It’s great having all four players being able to play and score.”

Landon Porter scored the final four points of the 14-0 run and scored the first six points of the fourth. Quinton Porter hit two big shots midway through the second as Norton cut Plainville’s lead to one, 18-17.

At that point, the Cardinals bursted for an 8-0 run of their own before the break. After scoring 26 points in the first half, Plainville was outscored by Norton, 36-17, in the second half.

Norton’s second major run came in a 12-0 stretch from the end of the third into the fourth, highlighted by three makes from Landon Porter, who scored a team-high 17. Quinton Porter added 10 while Hayden Friend scored a game-high 19 for Plainville.

With a win against TMP on Saturday, the Norton Bluejays would claim their first MCL Tournament title 2004, the final of seven consecutive for Norton.The TMP boys faced off with Norton for the MCL title Saturday night.

TMP girls 71, Stockton 48

The Thomas More Prep-Marian girls’ basketball team showcased its entire arsenal in the first quarter of Friday’s MCL Tournament semifinal contest against Stockton.

The Monarchs started by going into the post for easy baskets from Kayla Vitztum. Melissa Pfeifer helped her squad drive into the lane and get easy scores in transition. When she did, the Monarchs were able to knock down three 3-pointers in the quarter.

There might as well have been a funnel over the Monarchs’ basket, emphasized by Kelsie DeWitt’s made 3-pointer while getting fouled late in the 25-point quarter. TMP would keep its pace for a 100-point night, but overall execution led the Monarchs to a 71-48 victory over the Tigers to advance to Saturday’s tournament finals.

Though Rose McFarland, head coach of the Monarchs, will find something from the game for her players to improve on, she had few words of displeasure immediately after Friday’s win.

“I thought it was a pretty good game,” McFarland said with a smirk. “I think our press kind of got us going at the beginning, and it has here of lately. We shot the ball good … It was a fun game.”

Twice the Monarchs’ press led to multiple field goals in short spans. After Vitztum completed a three-point play, Pfeifer and Megan Koenigsman applied immediate pressure and got Pfeifer into an easy look. Pfeifer scored her second basket of the quarter in similar fashion. The pressure limited Stockton to 12 points in the opening quarter and pushed TMP to 25 with all the easy chances handed to them.

“Since Christmas, we’ve been getting up and down the floor more, putting a little more pressure on defensively,” McFarland said. “I think it’s just really helped the girl’s confidence. They’re getting some easy looks getting down the floor. Our inside-out game was pretty good tonight.”

With much of the crowd on hand neutral just enjoying Friday night basketball, there was a sort of disbelief among the fans at TMP’s shooting performance. Madyson Koerner hit a 3-pointer early in the quarter before Koenigsman benefited from a shooter’s roll and got one of her own.

In the meantime, Stockton went to the line for and-one opportunities four times in the first half and completing two. Still, the Monarchs shot their way to a 39-19 halftime lead.

After sitting out the second quarter with foul trouble, Vitztum scored the first six points of the third for TMP, including a three-point play. Just when things got going inside, the floodgates opened beyond the arc. Pfeifer drilled one of her own, as well as Koenigsman. Two 3-pointers and 11 total points in the quarter from Koerner pushed TMP ahead, 56-36, and bumped Koerner’s total to a game-high 16 points.

With the benches emptied, the Monarchs rested their starters for the fourth quarter on their way to a 71-48 victory and a 9-2 record on the season. Saturday was not a chance to defend their MCL Tournament crown, but a chance at revenge of Hill City, which beat TMP on its home floor earlier this season.

While Friday’s performance was reassuring of the team’s progress, McFarland’s main priority to beating the Ringnecks is limiting turnovers and guarding their sharpshooters tightly.

“Last time we had quite a few turnovers and our intensity wasn’t there last time,” McFarland said. “We’re really going to have to get on their shooters. They’re got some excellent shooters, so we’re gonna have to defend and not let them penetrate.”

Hill City girls 59, Phillipsburg 18

Close games have come far and few between during Linda Nighswonger’s 9-0 start to the season with the Hill City Ringnecks.

Friday’s Mid-Continent League Tournament semifinal contest with the Phillipsburg Panthers was no exception. Three Ringnecks reached double figures to propel Hill City to a 59-18 victory and a berth in Saturday’s final of the MCL Tournament at Plainville High School.

Despite leading 13-4 after the first quarter, Hill City struggled for six minutes in the second and allowed Phillipsburg to cut the deficit to 18-10.

Having already completed a three-point play in the quarter, Amanda Conway scored 11 of his 15 first-half points in just more than one minute of game time. A basket by Lauren Jones sealed a 13-0 run by Hill City to end the half leading 31-10.

The run reached 15-0 when Connor Keith opened the half with a basket. A jumper by Phillipsburg’s Ashley Babcock ended the dominant stretch by Hill City and gave the Panthers their sixth different scorer in the game.

The defensive pressure of Hill City’s 2-3 zone continued to push the likes of Conway and Jones into easy fast-break opportunities, just as it has the entirety of its 9-0 start. Conway (17), Jones (13) and Lexie McDowell (12) each finished in double figures, leading the Ringnecks to a 59-18 victory and MCL Tournament finals berth.

If the Ringnecks (9-0) are able to steal the trophy away from the Monarchs with a win Saturday, it could set up one of the top matchups the state will see all season. On Tuesday, Hill City travels to Hoxie, winners of 106 straight games. If Hoxie is able to knock off Dighton for a second time this year, though it is Dighton’s only loss of the season, a win by Hill City would mean a matchup of a 10-0 and 12-0 team Tuesday in Hoxie.

MCL Tournament

Semifinals

Boys

Norton 55, Plainville 43

Norton 9 10 19 17 — 55

Plainville 14 12 8 9 — 43

Norton — Ruder 10, Henson 12, Q. Porter 10, L. Porter 17, McEwen 1, Ellis 5.

Plainville — Friend 19, Gillum 4, J. Copeland 5, Reif 9, Wilkerson 1, T. Copeland 3.

TMP-Marian 55, Hill City 28

TMP Marian 10 12 19 14 — 55

Hill City 4 7 9 8 — 28

TMP-Marian — Vitztum 25, Ruder 10, Schumacher 6, Hoffman 2, Lager 8, Romme 3.

Hill City — Brandyberry 3, Wilson 3, Buccholz 6, Bates 5, Kyles 12.

Girls

Hill City 59, Phillipsburg 18

Hill City 13 18 15 13 — 50

Phillipsburg 4 6 6 2 — 18

Hill City — Jones 5, Keith 13, McDowell 12, Bell 2, Simon 6, Nickelson 4, Conway 17,

Phillipsburg — Dibble 4, Bartels 4, Babcock 2, Beach 2, Davis 2, Mathes 2, Hoover 2.

TMP-Marian 71, Stockton 48

TMP-Marian 25 14 26 6 — 71

Stockton 12 7 17 12 — 48