TOPEKA — Using its 3-2 zone early and often against Topeka High Friday night, the Manhattan High boys’ basketball team gave up plenty of offensive rebounds and second chances to the hometown Trojans.
The way the Indians were shooting the ball, it didn’t matter.
Despite taking 22 fewer shots than its opponent, the Indians managed to keep Topeka at bay and win 56-44 in the team’s second game without head coach Tim Brooks.
Manhattan (9-4, 5-2 Centennial) made 16 of 31 (51 percent) of its shots, while the Trojans shot 15 of 53 (28 percent) from the floor.
Topeka stayed in the game for three quarters by rebounding the basketball, finishing with a 29-18 advantage overall, but a 14-2 advantage on the offensive glass.
“We had some trouble rebounding the basketball, we talked about it at halftime,” MHS assistant coach Benji George said. “It still gave us trouble in the second half, but for the most part we were able to get over the hump rebounding. Once we started rebounding the basketball, we really took control.”
The Trojans struggled to put the ball in the hole and were clearly bothered by Manhattan’s zone. They finished the night 3 of 22 from the behind the arc, while continually settling for low-percentage shots.
“I think our length bothered them,” George said, “and we’ve been able to do that this year with teams that have good shooters.”
MHS led 29-20 at halftime, using an 8-0 run in the second quarter’s final minute to build a lead it would never give up in the second half, despite several Trojan rallies.
“Going into halftime, that was a great sequence for us,” George said. “We called timeout with two or three minutes left, and from that point on, we really executed well. It’s so uplifting on the road to go into the half with something positive like that.”
Topeka cut into Manhattan’s lead in the third quarter, then trimmed the lead to as few as four midway through the final period before finally relenting, with MHS finishing the game strong from the line. The Indians made 11 of 14 attempts in the final quarter to keep the Trojans at arm’s length.
“Be strong with the ball, don’t turn it over,” Indians’ point guard Alex Stitt said of the team’s late-game poise. “We’ve struggled late in games in the past. We wanted to focus on executing and getting the ball to our free-throw shooters. It worked out.”
The Indians were led offensively by Payton Stephens’ 21 points, with Stitt also in double figures with 10.
“(Stephens) worked hard and he did a great job of finishing around the rim, but credit the other guys for being selfless and getting the ball to him,” George said. “I think the guards really understood that getting the ball inside was our path to success in this game.”
Stephens said Topeka’s zone created some opportunities on the low block.
“They were in that zone, so a lot of it was working the ball around,” Stephens said. “Once we did that, it opened up down low a lot. I was fortunate to get that tonight.
“Early, I wanted to attack, and if the double-team came, I knew I had people spotting up and had shooters on the perimeter.”
Topeka (8-6, 4-4) was led by Duncan Whitlock’s nine points, with Aishontis Sanders and Ernest Carter adding eight points apiece.
While MHS’ zone contributed to the poor rebounding numbers, the strategy worked well defensively. George said making shots on offense helped keep Topeka from scoring in transition.
“We really thought we could control the tempo with our zone, and we did a great job of getting into our zone and controlling their guards pushing the ball down the floor,” George said. “But you can’t do that if you don’t execute on offense and get baskets and make free throws. So our offense helped us out.”
The game also featured extended minutes for sophomore Grant Munsen, who came in for Pierson McAtee when the junior had to sit with foul trouble.
“We’ve got to get guys like Grant ready to go,” George said. “Depth is our No. 1 biggest issue right now, and it’s something we need to look at fixing. Credit Grant for being ready to go, I knew he would be. Just being able to spell guys and play great defense is huge for us.”
Manhattan is now 2-0 without Brooks patrolling the coach’s box, with George and Shane Sieben leading the team to a win last week against Emporia. Stitt said the absence of Brooks has changed things for the team, but they can’t dwell on it.
“We’re getting there,” Stitt said. “We try and when we leave basketball practice, just get our mind off it. We don’t know anything, there’s nothing we can do about it, so just play and move on.”
Stephens said the team can’t afford to focus on what’s happening off the court.
“We’re in our four-game mini-season right now,” Stephens said. “So, we’re taking it one game at a time and that’s what we’re focused on.”
While the time table for a decision on Brooks is still unknown, the Indians enter next week with three games on the schedule, starting with Washburn Rural on Monday in a boys-only matchup, before hosting Topeka West on Tuesday and a trip to Shawnee Heights on Friday. Monday’s game is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
Fehr leaves team
Senior Bret Fehr didn’t make the trip Friday night, and confirmed to The Mercury that he is no longer with the team because of the Brooks situation. With depth already a problem this season, Fehr’s absence and Winston Dimel’s season-ending surgery have created a tough issue for the interim coaching staff.