All season long, Manhattan High has been a much better team when Caroline Ballard is playing well offensively.
With senior point guard Elayna Spilker out with a foot injury, the need for Ballard to come through was amplified even more. The sophomore rose to the challenge, scoring a game-high 16 points, 11 in the second half, to lead the Indians past visiting Emporia 40-30 Friday night.
Head coach Scott Mall said having Ballard contribute so much with Spilker out of the lineup was pivotal.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “Usually we get scoring from Elayna and Darby pretty consistently. When Caroline scores, it just makes a huge difference.”
Besides Ballard’s scoring, it was the Manhattan defense keeping Emporia at arm’s length for most of the game. The Indians had to battle back from a 6-0 deficit when Spartan guard Kayna Hastings, who finished with a team-high 12 points, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to start the game. But those were the last two field goals any Spartan would make in the first half, as Manhattan built a 16-8 lead by halftime behind its defense.
That defense sputtered a bit in the third quarter, as Emporia closed the deficit to two points, but Manhattan (8-2, 4-2 Centennial) kept its lead in the fourth quarter before closing out the game with eight straight free throws. Manhattan didn’t shoot a great percentage from the charity stripe, finishing 16 of 27, but Emporia shot just as poorly, with far fewer chances, finishing 5 of 9.
“I thought defensively, it started there,” Mall said. “Except for a stretch there in the third quarter with a couple little mental mistakes, we played super. We did what we wanted to do most of the time and the girls just did a great job of communicating and getting it done.”
In addition to solid team defense, the Indians shut down Emporia forward Brianna Knight, keeping her completely off the scoreboard on 0 of 4 shooting.
Knight scored 10 points on 5 of 7 shooting in the first matchup against Manhattan. Indian post Darby Price, who scored six points, battled through foul trouble while drawing the defensive assignment against Knight.
“Darby was on her a lot and did a good job of denying, but then when the ball came in, moving her feet to get the defensive position we want to not give Knight a look at the basket,” Mall said. “That’s probably the best we’ve done that this year, being in one position and then getting into another position while the ball was coming in.”
For Emporia (4-6, 2-4), taking all the momentum in the second half and cutting the Manhattan lead to 32-30 with 3:08 to play only to falter down the stretch was especially frustrating for head coach Bill Nienstedt. Emporia had seven turnovers in the fourth quarter, with 19 on the night.
“I thought they clearly executed better down the stretch in the fourth quarter,” Nienstedt said. “We don’t foul the right people, foul when we’re supposed to, then we turned the basketball over in the last three minutes and didn’t get shots.
“We didn’t play with poise there late, and we just didn’t play smart.”
It wasn’t until the third quarter that Spilker’s absence became noticeable, as Manhattan turned the ball over five times against Emporia’s pressure as the Spartans rallied. But Savannah Roberts, who started in Spilker’s place, as well as Savannah Thaemert and Amara Ehie off the bench, helped take care of the ball alongside Par McNair, who did the bulk of the ball handling.
“Savannah Roberts started the last time we played Emporia and had a really good game,” Mall said. “Par, we really needed her on the floor all the time, so it hurt when she picked up her second foul, but we put other girls in and they stepped up. Amara Ehie became a ball handler, which she hasn’t been before, but because she’s strong and aggressive, we knew that would be a good thing.”
Manhattan did miss Spilker from beyond the arc, going 0 for 5 from long range. Spilker was on crutches before the game and is day-to-day, but could be back this week.
Mall said he’s happy his team will spend the first part of this week preparing for the Mid-America Classic in McPherson coming off a win, instead of a loss.
“It’ll help to get us back going,” he said. “And hopefully give Elayna time to heal.”