DODGE CITY — Sometimes if you’re struggling shooting, it’s best just to toss it up and pray.
That’s exactly what Ethan Nunnery did as time expired at the end of the first quarter Thursday afternoon at the 75th annual Dodge City Tournament of Champions at United Wireless Arena.
What happened became a critical catalyst as Nunnery’s shot found paydirt just short of halfcourt, boosting the Hays High School boys’ basketball team to a 63-45 victory over Manhattan.
“That got our momentum going,” Nunnery said. “It got us all hyped up to come out and play good.”
The 3-pointer tied the game at 14 as Manhattan fans complained the shot came after the horn sounded. But the officials didn’t bat an eye on calling the shot good, and the Indians had seized momentum after struggling shooting in the opening period.
“I never want to think that a play made in the first quarter can determine the outcome of a game,” said HHS coach Rick Keltner. “But without a doubt, that shot was one of those highlight video shots that got everyone talking. I think the 2 o’clock game, sometimes the kids don’t come out of the gates right away. As the game went on, we got in a little more rhythm.”
What happened after the last-second shot was a stingy Hays High defensive effort that limited Manhattan (5-4) to only two points in the second quarter.
Nunnery got hot in the quarter, finishing the first half with nine of his 13 points as Hays High (8-2) built a 28-16 lead at the break.
“I’ve been off lately on my 3’s,” said Nunnery, who was coming off a triple-double Friday night at Garden City. “But I’ve been practicing and shooting them in practice.”
Nunnery was solid again at the point, adding game-highs with eight rebounds and eight assists. Oh yeah, he also had a pair of steals.
“It’s just good, and it gave us momentum going into the second quarter,” junior Tradgon McCrae said about the last-second trey by Nunnery. “It showed us that they are going to fall. It fell, and it was good.”
The second quarter was capped by a last-second 3 from McCrae, who finished with a game-high 17 points after a 36-point outing Friday at Garden City.
“I hope so, and I hope I can keep going,” McCrae said about being in a rhythm. “I feel like I found my shot a little bit, and I hope it continues.”
While Nunnery was the spark in the first half, McCrae came up big when things got tight in the third quarter.
After falling behind by 15 early in the period, Manhattan made things interesting by pulling within 36-32 with 2:05 to play in the third.
But senior Kyler Koenke started a 5-0 spurt with a bucket, and McCrae followed with a driving layup and then one of two free throws for a 41-32 advantage entering the final period.
“It was good for momentum and to get the team going again,” McCrae said. “It kind of calmed everybody down and allowed us to play basketball.”
From there, Hays High used a 12-4 run to start the fourth quarter, making it 53-36 with 4:08 to play.
Four different HHS players scored in the run, capped by a long 3-pointer by McCrae — his 13th triple in the last two games.
“We knew they would make a run because they are well-coached and have good players,” Keltner said. “Our guys answered their challenges.”
Senior Peyton Kieffer added 15 points for Hays High, which held Manhattan without a double-figure scorer.
The win put the Indians in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. semifinal against Wichita Heights. The Falcons were a 56-45 winner over Leavenworth in other first-round action.
“We’ve been here a few times and won it in 2014,” Keltner said. “We’ve been in the finals numerous times. … It’s always more fun to be in that game, and you always have to beat someone good to get into that game. The biggest game of the year is tomorrow, as it always is the next game.”