EMPORIA — T.J. Nunnery and Carson Kieffer came up clutch when Hays High needed them on Wednesday night against Highland Park.
The Indians trailed by as many as 10 early, but Nunnery and Kieffer combined for 12 of their 13 fourth-quarter points, including a pair of free throws by Nunnery with 3.6 seconds to go to lift Hays to a 46-43 victory in the first round of the Class 5A state tournament.
"Carson and T.J. were huge for us," Hays High coach Alex Hutchins said. "We’re a tall team, and we play through our posts a lot over the course of the season. Guard play wins in postseason games.
"You have to have guards that not only handle the ball and take care of it, but also make some things happen. Both of those guys did a great job of that tonight. Just proud of all our guys for fighting and finding a way to get it done."
Hays (17-6) advances to the semifinals to face Basehor-Linwood at 8:15 p.m. Friday.
"We got off to a slow start, so we wanted to pick it up in the second half," said Nunnery, who finished with 14 points. "They were pressuring us really good, and making us force shots, getting empty possessions, and they were scoring on the other end."
Making their first state appearance since 2014, the Indians had some opening-round jitters, facing a tough Scot team who plays in a competitive Centennial League on a nightly basis.
Highland Park led from the get-go, with the Indians pulling within two on a Nunnery 3-pointer. After that, Highland Park went on an 8-0 run to end the quarter with a 15-5 advantage.
Hays ended a 7:13 scoreless drought with 6:27 to play before halftime on a basket by Dalyn Schwarz. The Indians were able to pull within five at 18-13 after a 3-pointer by Kieffer, but Highland Park was able to push its lead to 22-15 at halftime.
"I think we let the emotion of the moment get the best of us, and we didn’t defend like we want to early," Hutchins said. "Our defense was too spread out, and we were presenting them way too many gaps to attack off the bounce. It was a matter of settling in and collecting ourselves mentally, and playing defense as a team."
The Indians trailed by as many as nine in the third quarter twice, but a basket by Schwarz with two seconds left in the period put Hays in a position to take a lead in the fourth quarter.
Nunnery gave the Indians their first lead with a triple with 6:10 to play. The two teams then went back-and-forth until the Scots took a slim 38-37 lead with 3:03 to play, but Hays got the lead back with back-to-back baskets by Kieffer. CJ Powell knotted things at 43 with 1:30 to play, but Hays was able to make enough free throws to hold on for the victory.
Kieffer led the Indians with 19 points. Hays finished the game shooting 53.3% from the field, including 10 of 17 in the second half.
Powell led the Scots with 14 points, who saw their season end with a 15-8 record.
Hays will face the Bobcats, who knocked off the defending Class 5A state champions Andover Central, 76-72, in another quarterfinal on Wednesday.
"They shoot the ball unbelievably well," Hutchins said. "Their two guards can go off and hit it from anywhere. They look like college guards, the way they shoot the ball and extend you out on defense.
"We’re going to have to do a really good job on them. We’re proud that we’re one of the last four teams playing."