TOPEKA — Scott Mall couldn’t help, but smile.
When Washburn Rural called a timeout with 16 seconds left in the sub-state finals against Manhattan on Friday at Topeka High, the Indians leading 41-36, the MHS coach just had to grin a little.
The Indians beat the Junior Blues 43-39 to advance to state for the first time since 1991, breaking a 21-year streak that Mall has seen first hand from start to finish.
Although he wasn’t the head coach until five years later, Mall served as a volunteer assistant for the 1991 team that took second-place to Seaman.
When Mall descended the stairs from the locker room on Friday, he was received by a crowd wishing congratulation to a coach that was taking a team to state for the first time in 16 years of service.
Mall said the praise deserves to go on the girls.
“I’m just so proud of the girls, they work so hard and they deserve every bit of this,” he said. “All those other years, that doesn’t have anything to do with this, this is their year. Those were other teams that worked as hard and it didn’t work out, these girls worked hard and it worked out, and that’s what its about. Every year is a new year and this is all about them.”
But even the players said Mall deserves a lot more credit than he is often given.
“Coach Mall is such an amazing coach,” senior guard Onyeka Ehie said. “Obviously the fact that we haven’t been to state in 21 years might make people think he isn’t that good of a coach, but no, he is a great coach and he deserves to go to state. And this year the cards were right for us.”
The Class 6A state tournament will be played next week at Koch Arena in Wichita and the Indians will play their first game on Wednesday.
Manhattan had the chance to go to state two years ago, when the cards appeared to be in their favor in a sub-state final against Washburn Rural in Wichita. But the Indians lost that game, and missed again.
Senior Mari Jo Massanet said to make it to state by beating the team that has been a thorn in the Indians’ path to state so often, made it even sweeter.
“To be sub-state champions is really great, but also to beat Washburn Rural in the sub-state championship just adds the cherry on top,” she said.
The Indians entered the second half with the lead, but a 3-pointer from Charly Michaelis tied the game at 24, and an old-fashioned three-point play from Paige Cunningham helped the Junior Blues lead 27-26 going into the fourth.
Jenna Crusinberry tied the game at 31 in the fourth quarter when she knocked down a 3-pointer with 4:37 to play, but Washburn Rural’s Erika Lane took the lead right back with a basket for the Junior Blues.
Darby Price scored an inside bucket and Elayna Spilker made two free throws to give the Indians a 35-33 lead with 2:28 left, and Washburn Rural coach Kevin Bordewick tried to halt an ensuing run with a timeout. It didn’t work.
Ehie made the first of two free throws, but Massanet rebounded her miss and got it to Spilker, who was fouled. Spilker made both free throws and the Indians led 38-33.
Washburn Rural missed on three straight chances to cut into the lead, and the Indians made 3-of-6 shots at the free throw line to push ahead 41-33, completing a 10-0 run.
Mall said the team showed a lot of poise after falling behind by as much as three points in the period.
“I told them afterwards, they definitely could have panicked a little bit when (Washburn Rural) hit a couple shots, but no, they went right about their business like they have all year,” he said. “They came down and we went right back to the stuff we’ve done on offense, which is drive to the basket and make something happen.”
Spilker was key in the fourth quarter, scoring seven of her 11 points. The junior guard also shot 9-of-10 at the free throw line for the game. Price also scored 11 points, including nine in the second half.
Both Spilker and Price have led the team in scoring over the past three games, and Mall said they have taken advantage of opportunities created by the opposing defense.
“They’ve really capitalized on the fact that team’s concentrate so much on Ony and Mari Jo, and when they get their chance they make a play, they do,” he said. “Darby does a great job of getting open underneath, and Elayna’s drive to the basket and driving and getting fouled on some, those were big.”
When the game ended, the team surrounded Mall in a mob. Massanet said it was one they wanted to win for themselves, but one they wanted for Mall as well.
“He never really tells us, he doesn’t stress it at all, but in the back of our minds we know it’s a special accomplishment for him,” she said. “When I went into this game, I was like, ‘yeah it would be awesome to go to state,’ but also Coach Mall’s been my coach for four years and I wanted to do it for him.”
Washburn Rural was the team that held the upper hand early on, answering a game-opening basket from Ehie with a pair of 3-pointers to go ahead 6-2.
The Indians made one more shot from the field for the rest of the quarter, and added four free throws, while holding the Junior Blues to three points to trail 9-8 after the first.
Ehie led the Indians in the second quarter, scoring seven of her nine first half points. She scored five points in a 7-2 run to start the period that last nearly 6 minutes and put MHS ahead 15-11.
The Junior Blues outscored the Indians 4-2 the rest of the half to trail 17-15 at halftime.
MANHATTAN 43, WASHBURN RURAL 39
Washburn Rural 9 6 12 12 — 39
Manhattan 8 9 9 17 — 43
WASHBURN RURAL (39) — Lane 13, Cunningham 11, Michaelis 10, Winkley 3, Weingartner 2.
MANHATTAN (43) — Spilker 11, Price 11, Ehie 10, Massanet 5, Crusinberry 4, Thompson 2.
3-pointers — Washburn Rural 4 (Lane 2, Michaelis 2). Manhattan 2 (Ehie, Crusinberry).