GREAT BEND — The Hays High boys viewed Friday night’s sub-state final against Great Bend as a chance to change the perception in its rivalry with the Panthers.
"We talked before the game about how the perception of this rivalry is that Great Bend is the tougher team with the chip on their shoulder, and they play more physical and kind of lock down," first-year Hays High boys coach Alex Hutchins said. "We wanted to change that tonight. We felt like we needed to go out and be the tougher team."
The Indians responded to the challenge and flipped the script, locking down the Panthers with a tremendous defensive effort that paved the way for a 43-36 win.
Hays High will advance to next week’s Class 5A tournament at White Auditorium in Emporia.
After splitting the regular-season series and sharing the Western Athletic Conference title with the Panthers, Hays (16-6) held Great Bend (17-5) to just 11 of 46 from the field and 7 of 30 from 3-point range in the rubber match to snap the Panthers’ 12-game win streak.
"The emphasis the last few days was: Can we get out with our hands up and take away the 3-point shot without sacrificing how good we’ve been inside?" Hutchins said. "… I think our boys responded with our best perimeter defense of the season."
Western Athletic Conference player of the year Alex Schremmer, who scored 35 points against the Indians in the first meeting between the teams back in January, led Great Bend with 15 points but was held to just 5 of 17 from the field. No other Panther scored more than six.
"We knew what was on the line," HHS sophomore guard Carson Kieffer said. "Our season was over if we lost, so we just put it all out there."
The Indians led 18-14 at halftime, closing the half on a 6-0 run.
"We just wanted to bring out the energy from the start," Hays High junior guard T.J. Nunnery said. "The last two games we’ve had slow starts, so we just wanted to switch that up."
Hays then hit the Panthers with a 12-0 run to start the third quarter as the HHS guards found success attacking the basket.
"I think our guards were as decisive and strong with the ball as they have been all year," Hutchins said. "You saw Carson, T.J., Jordan (Dale) and Jason (Krannawitter), they were strong, they ripped through, they attacked off the bounce."
After falling behind as much as 16 in the third quarter, the Panthers put together a mini run to cut the deficit to 10 with 6:19 left in the game, but Krannawitter answered with a trey to push the lead back to 13 and Great Bend never got back closer than the seven-point final margin.
"I think Jason’s 3 was big," Hutchins said. "We were expecting that run to come and expecting them to hit some. Thankfully, they didn’t hit too many."
Hays brought a nice contingent of fans, and the Indians managed to help keep the Panther fan base subdued.
"In the third quarter, you kind of saw our boys embrace the moment and embrace making an opposing crowd be quiet," Hutchins said. "Once they hit a couple shots, it made me remember that (Great Bend fans) were there. There’s not many better feelings as a coach than having your boys make you forget how loud the home crowd is."
Kieffer led the Indians with 13 points, while Jace Linenberger added nine and Nunnery had eight.
Hays will make its 20th state tournament appearance.
"These boys have been a joy all year," Hutchins said. "That’s one of the biggest reasons we wanted to win, just so we don’t have to be done.
"This is a group our entire coaching staff loves being around. We love coaching them, we love what we get from them in practice. They love basketball and they’re very coachable. I’m really proud of the way they’ve continued to grow. All the credit goes to them, and we’re just excited that we get another week."
The Class 5A boys quarterfinals will begin Wednesday at Emporia’s White Auditorium. The bracket will be announced on Sunday.
"I think as long as we continue to be confident and aggressive on offense and just keep hanging our hat on the defensive end, we’ve got a chance any night," Hutchins said.