Hays girls show fight but fall to Salina Central

Arne Green
Hays Daily News

Salina Central's girls have come to realize that on nights when their shots aren't falling they can still fall back on their defense. 

Against an overmatched but scrappy Hays team that refused to back down, it was the Mustangs' disruptive defense that ultimately prevailed Tuesday night as they opened the postseason with a 52-29 Class 5A sub-state semifinal victory over the Indians at the Central gym. 

"We focus a lot on our defense," Central guard Landry Stewart said after the Mustangs held Hays to 18.1% shooting and forced 30 turnovers to overcome their own offensive inadequacies. "We take a lot of pride in our defense and that's what carried us tonight." 

By taking care of Hays, the top-seeded Mustangs advanced to the championship game, where they will entertain No. 2 seed Salina South at 7 p.m. with the winner advancing to state. Central (17-4), split their two regular-season meeting with the Cougars, who advanced with a semifinal victory over Great Bend on Tuesday. 

Central never was in serious danger against Hays, which saw its season end with a 6-15 record. The Mustangs led 12-3 after one quarter and after scoring the first three points of the second period maintained a double-digit advantage the rest of the way. 

But the Indians continued to keep the pressure on, making life difficult for Central to get in a rhythm offensively. The Mustangs had an uncharacteristic 25 turnovers. 

"They play really hard and they're very physical on defense," Central coach Chris Fear said of Hays. "They took us out of a few things we wanted to get done, and that's a credit to them. 

"We just kind of kept plugging away and did enough to get it done, but there wasn't anything easy about it." 

Hays' top priority was stopping Aubrie Kierscht, the Mustangs' leading scorer. That job fell to Carly Lang, who denied Kierscht the ball by face-guarding her all over the floor. 

Kierscht eventually created enough opportunities to finish with a game-high 13 points, but she was just 1 of 6 from 3-point range and 4 of 12 overall. 

"Carly Lang is a whale of a kid and she plays so hard," Hays coach Len Melvin said. "She gets that task every night. 

"Not a lot of people embrace that role, but she does and I'm really proud of her." 

Hays' biggest issues came on the offensive end. 

"Our girls played really hard," Melvin said. "That's the effort they gave all year. 

"We've struggled scoring all year, but we never struggled with giving maximum effort. It just came down to us valuing the possessions, and credit Salina Central. They get their hands on passes and we've really struggled with turnovers." 

Central generated enough offense off turnovers and by getting the ball inside to make up for their own turnover woes. All five Mustang starters had at least eight points, led by Kierscht's 13 and 12 from Stewart, while point guard Mykayla Cunningham had nine, and post players Hampton Williams and Chaliscia Samilton each added eight. 

"We came out not very enthused at the beginning, but in the second half we came out and communicated on offense and defense," Cunningham said. "Their defense was very aggressive and we just had to move the ball and look for our shots. 

"I think we were a little nervous also and we tried to find some openings that weren't there." 

The Mustangs outrebounded Hays, 41-34, with Williams grabbing 11 and Samilton 10. Morgan Engel led Hays with eight points and eight rebounds.