PLAINVILLE — The Thomas More Prep-Marian boys’ and girls’ basketball teams have made themselves right at home in the Mid-Continent League Basketball Tournament as both teams grabbed top honors in their first two seasons in the league.
Despite being the No. 1 seed in the boys’ bracket and his team boasting a No. 8 ranking in Class 3A, Norton head coach Doug Reusink didn’t feel as though the Bluejays were the favorite coming into the championship game against the No. 2 seed Monarchs on Saturday night in the 2016 tourney finale.
”If you would ask anyone in the league, TMP would have been the favorite coming into the tournament,” Reusink said.
The Monarchs showed why, taking control of the game in the second half as they cruised to a 50-36 win, handing the top-seeded Bluejays just their second loss. TMP moved to 10-2 with its 10th straight victory.
“We struggled at time on offense, especially in that the third quarter. We just went dry,” Reusink said. “They are too good of a team to go too long of periods to not score, and we did that in the third quarter.”
Monarch center Jared Vitztum took a different path to his usual dominating performance on offense for TMP. After Vitztum tallied six points in first quarter, the Norton defense clamped down on the Monarchs 6-foot-7 do-it-all senior. Vitztum scored just twice in the middle quarters before scoring 13 in the final quarter, including making 9-of-10 at the free throw line. Vitztum finished the night with 23 points, sinking 11 of 12 free throws.
Another TMP senior had the two most impressive baskets on the night for the back-to-back MCL tournament champions. After a missed Norton free throw, Ryan Ruder dribbled up court and got off a buzzer-beating shot from beyond half-court to give TMP a 15-9 lead after the first quarter. Ruder then made an almost as unheard of basket as he banked in a shot from the left wing in the second quarter on his way to nine first-half points.
Ruder couldn’t pull off a third miraculous shot as a 75-foot heave bounced off the rim to end the third quarter as the Monarchs took a 33-27 lead into the final quarter of play in Plainville.
Ruder contributed to the championship win in not as noticeable ways too.
“He probably did the best job keeping the ball out of (Norton’s) Jace Ruder’s hands down low,” said TMP-Marian coach Joe Hertel. “He played a really solid game that probably a lot of people didn’t see because he wasn’t flashy. Ryan is a just a solid, steady, savvy player.”
The final quarter belonged to Peyton Hoffman and Vitztum. Hoffman continued to attack the Bluejays’ defense and Vitztum put the game out of reach with his nearly-perfect free throw shooting in the final eight minutes of championship play.
“They played like veteran starters should play,” Hertel said. “It isn’t as much about numbers as it is the presence and the ability to keep a unit of five working together, even in tough times.”
TMP will travel to Abilene on Friday, while Norton will play host to Trego on Tuesday.
The TMP girls found themselves in the same position as the boys entering the game. The Monarchs won last year’s MCL tournament, but were the No. 2 seed to No. 1 Hill City entering the tournament.
The championship game provided the Monarchs a chance to avenge an early-season home loss to the Ringnecks. In the first matchup, the Ringnecks came out on fire shooting and their press caused problems for TMP in Hays.
The roles were reversed Saturday night in Plainville as TMP got out to a 19-12 first-quarter lead en route to to a 57-44 victory, a near mirror image of Hill City’s 55-42 win in Hays in December.
On Saturday, TMP had a commanding 15-point lead at halftime. The Monarchs took advantage of Hill City’s Lexie McDowell sitting the last three minutes of the first quarter and the entire second quarter with two fouls.
“We talked about it (bringing McDowell back into the game) a lot,” said Hill City coach Linda Nighswonger. “We just felt if we bring her back in and she picks up another foul then she’s out longer, and everybody else has to get after it.”
With McDowell out, the Monarchs found it much easier to keep up the offensive attack.
“I really feel like we took it to them. We were really looking inside and out,” said Monarch sophomore Kayla Vitztum, one of three to reach double figures for TMP.
Vitztum drew the task of stopping the versatile McDowell and outscored her 18-10 in the game.
“I knew she was on their best players and she has been scoring a lot, but coach just said ‘you are fast’ and that gave me a lot of confidence,” said Vitztum.
TMP’s Megan Koenigsman gave the Monarchs their biggest lead of the game at 17 as she made a basket with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter. She finished with a game-high 19 points.
Hill City’s defense, though, caused several turnovers as the Ringnecks fought back behind seven points from Amanda Conway in the third quarter.
“I just thought it was the last time I would play against them, so I have to give it all I got,” Conway said.
After having their 17-point lead cut to just three at 42-39 early in the fourth quarter, another Monarch stepped up big in the win. Madyson Koerner pushed the lead back to five with a basket early in the quarter. Then, Koerner converted on all four of her free throws as the Ringnecks started to foul in an attempt to get back into the game. Koerner scored 8 of her 16 points in the final quarter. Koenigsman also had a big 3 to push TMP’s lead back to eight.
TMP coach Rose McFarland was pleased with how her team played the Ringnecks the second time this season.
“We were more aggressive. We got the ball inside and that opens the outside. We shot a lot better this game. The first time we played them, we didn’t shoot good at all,” McFarland aid. “We handled their pressure better this time. I am just pleased with our improvement from the first time we played Hill City until now.”
“I would say they were a lot more aggressive this time. Their post players didn’t board very aggressively (in December) and they left our shooters open,” said Nighswonger. “Tonight it was the other way. They were aggressive on the boards and their shooters were hitting. Then we had to scramble.”
The championship game pitted several players against their summer basketball teammates. Conway and McDowell of Hill City partner with Koerner, Koenigsman, and Melissa Pfeifer from TMP on the Western Kansas Elite traveling team.
“It was exciting. It was really fun. We have been talking like ‘can’t wait for this game’ so it was fun,” Conway said.
“On the court, they don’t have to be friends, but off the court it is nice that they respect each other,” McFarland added.
Hill City (9-1) now will try and tackle the task of stopping the state’s best win streak of four-time defending Class 1A Division I state champion Hoxie. The Ringnecks, ranked No. 4 in Class 2A, travel to Hoxie on Tuesday.
TMP travels to Abilene on Friday.