Hays High coach Alex Hutchins expected nothing to come easy offensively against a scrappy Arkansas City team.
In turn, the Indians’ defense helped make things pretty miserable on the Bulldogs in Tuesday’s Class 5A sub-state opener at Hays High.
No. 5-seeded Hays High surrendered the first nine points of the game and trailed 12-3 at the end of the first quarter, but the Indians held Ark City to just 14 points over the last three quarters in a 42-26 win.
"We really do believe (defense) is the one thing that is always going to be there as long you’re playing hard," Hutchins said. "… You can control how hard you play on defense and how you fight for position and box out. I think our guys have been doing a really good job of taking care of those things."
The win sets up a third date with rival Great Bend, which will play host to the Indians at 7 p.m. Friday with a berth in the Class 5A state tournament in Emporia on the line.
Ark City looked prime for an upset bid early after jumping out to the 9-0 lead over the first four minutes.
"We kind of had to fight through some nerves in front of a big crowd," Hutchins said. "Our crowd was great, but that crowd isn’t so great when you fall down nine to nothing."
After the three-point first quarter, Hays started to find an offensive rhythm in the second frame. The Indians went into the break down 17-16.
"We knew it would be a struggle to score just because of how hard Ark City plays defense," Hutchins said. "If you watch any film on them or watch what they’ve done over the course of the season, those kids scrap and fight and claw."
But the Indians (15-6) dominated the second half, outscoring the Bulldogs 26-9 after halftime.
"I was just really proud of the way the boys responded, and responded to the way the game was being called and responded to the way they were being defended, and answered the call," Hutchins said. "I thought it was a good experience for our boys to settle into a postseason environment, settle in to being behind, and handle it the right way."
The Indians ended the first half on an 8-0 run and scored the first nine points of the second half, starting with a 3-pointer from Dylan Ruder that gave HHS the lead for the first time. Dalyn Schwarz then scored back-to-back buckets, and a basket from Jace Linenberger put the Indians up eight.
"Right before we walked out for the third quarter, we said we need to win these first three or four possessions," Hutchins said. "We need to get ahead on the scoreboard and settle into this thing. I think once you saw us get ahead, you saw the boys relax and get back into what they’re used to doing."
Schwarz led the Indians with 11 points. Doug Stewart scored 10 for Ark City.
The Indians will now turn their attention to Great Bend, which escaped a scare from Salina Central on Tuesday, outlasting the Mustangs in overtime, 63-61.
Since Hays High’s 64-62 win over Great Bend on Jan. 14, the Panthers (18-4) have reeled off 11 straight wins, including a 60-56 win over Hays on Feb. 11 in Great Bend. The Indians and Panthers shared the Western Athletic Conference title with 7-1 conference records.
"I would say the way our first two games (with Great Bend) went, a rubber match is probably pretty good," Hutchins said. "We’re going to have a tough task in front of us. They haven’t lost since they lost to us, which seems like a lifetime ago.
"They’re a senior-laden group. They’re playing at home; I’m sure that place is going to be juiced. But those are the moments you prepare for. Those are the moments you hope you get a chance to play in — playing a rival for a berth at state."