HUTCHINSON — Nobody is going to describe Saturday’s Class 3A girls third-place game between Norton and Nemaha Central a thing of beauty.
But in all honesty, it looked pretty darn good to Norton coach George Rossi.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Rossi said. “But it was the best effort we’ve had in terms of sticking in there and weathering the storm. The kids just had no quit and played their butts off.”
The persistence paid off. Norton overcame a five-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Thunder 36-33 and finish third in Class 3A — the program’s highest state finish since a runner-up showing in 3A in 1995. Norton finished the season 23-3 while the Thunder ended with a 21-5 mark.
Neither team really found much offensive rhythm in the game as Norton held one-point leads at the end of each of the first three quarters (12-11, 16-15, 26-25). But led by two quick baskets from Alleigh Kramer to start the fourth, the Thunder opened the final period with a 6-0 run to take a 31-26 lead.
Whatever momentum the Thunder had, however, disappeared quickly. Nemaha turned it over on its next two possessions and missed five straight shots and two free throws, allowing Norton to put together its own 6-0 run to re-take the lead 32-31 on a pair of Taryn Kuhn free throws.
Ashley Larkin ended Nemaha’s drought with a go-ahead bucket with 1:34 to play, but Norton immediately answered with a pair of free throws by Kuhn with 57 seconds left to go back on top for good.
“We thought we could wear them down and in the fourth quarter that would benefit us,” Hiltgen said. “But give Norton credit. They made plays at the end and we never could get over the hump after that.”
Norton had to come up big defensively in the final minute, however, to preserve the win. Kramer missed a go-ahead jumper in the lane with 30 seconds, but then intercepted Norton’s half-court inbounds pass to give the Thunder another shot.
This time, Kramer tried to drive for the game-winner, but Norton came up with a block and Hannah Bailey corralled the rebound and was fouled. She hit both free throws with 8.7 seconds left and Nemaha couldn’t get off a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
“She’s our worst free throw shooter but she stepped up and made two big ones for us,” Rossi said. “We missed a lot of free throws but fortunately we made other baskets.”
Kuhn led the Bluejays with 14 points, while Tessa Hauser added 11 points and 2 rebounds. Hadley Hauser only scored five, but had nine rebounds and six blocked shots.
Kramer was the only Thunder player in double figures, scoring all 12 of her team-high points in the second half.
Despite having its title dreams dashed on Friday night by Royal Valley, Rossi said he was ecstatic with his team’s third-place finish.
“We talked last night that two teams can walk away here today with a win,” Rossi said. “It’s maybe not the win we were hoping for, but we’ll certainly take it.”