After last year’s state tournament appearance, the goal for the Manhattan High girls’ basketball team this entire season was to get back and do more when it got there.
With a 53-35 win over Derby Thursday, the Indians are one game away from making back-to-back state tournament appearances and achieving that goal.
But with Wichita Heights as the final opponent before state, the Indians know it won’t be easy. The importance of Saturday’s game, difficult though it may be, is not lost on junior post Darby Price.
“That’s the sub-state championship,” Price said. “We have to win it, we have to get there. We’re going to get to state, so we have to beat them. That’s been the team goal, to get to state and win it.”
Outscoring Derby in every quarter was the easy part to get there, as the Indians shot 45 percent from the floor and got plenty of good looks against the Panther defense.
The game was a rematch from Nov. 30, when Manhattan beat Derby 60-36 to start its season. Thursday’s game was much the same, with the Indians taking a commanding lead early and adding to it as the game wore on.
MHS was especially good on defense, keeping Derby guard Madi Greenwood from scoring in two out of four quarters. She finished the night 4 of 16 from the floor for a team-high 16 points. Alyxis Bowens, Derby’s other top scorer, finished with 14 points after getting in foul trouble early.
“I thought the real difference was defensively, the girls really carried out our game plan on the court as far as what we wanted to do to stop their two best players,” Manhattan coach Scott Mall said. “When they got the ball inside to Bowens, we had help there right away and she struggled sometimes with what to do.”
Darby Price led Manhattan with a game-high 18 points, while Elayna Spilker chipped in 12. Par McNair was also in double figures with 10 points, while making 6 of 8 free throws.
“Par really did a good job of getting the ball to the basket tonight,” Mall said. “We thought going in we had the chance to get some penetration in the lane and draw some fouls.”
For Price, scoring 18 points against taller, longer defenders wasn’t easy. But the junior is getting used to playing against bigger opponents and focusing on rebounding.
“It’s really tough, because you have to box them out,” Price said. “You have to keep fighting to keep them off the boards and away from the basket. I think I was more aggressive than I usually have been getting to the basket. This could have been our last game, so I was going to go all out.”
With Caroline Ballard in foul trouble much of the game, senior Katie Proctor played one of her best games of the year, using solid defense to frustrate Bowens while rebounding the ball as well as she has all year.
“I thought Katie did a super job,” Mall said. “She’s so smart, and defensively she knew what we wanted to do and went out and executed it.”
Manhattan led 34-20 at halftime and took a 40-24 advantage into the fourth quarter as both teams struggled in the third.
After not scoring for the first four minutes of the third quarter, the Indians went on a 6-0 run to re-establish themselves offensively. In the fourth, Derby never got closer than 11 points as Manhattan closed out the game.
Early on, the Indians built a double-digit lead in the first quarter, holding Greenwood to no points and just two shots in the opening period, while knocking down 8 of 14 shots for a 19-7 lead.
Price led the way with eight points on 3-of-3 shooting to go with a pair of free throws.
In the second quarter, Greenwood was able to get things going, driving to the rim and taking plenty of contact from Indians defenders. She scored all 13 of Derby’s points in the second quarter, shooting 3 of 6 from the floor paired with 6 of 8 made free throws. The rest of the Panthers were 0 for 7 from the floor in the second quarter.
The Indians didn’t shoot as well in the second quarter, but still managed to outscore the Panthers, taking a 34-20 halftime lead. They were 4 of 12 in the second quarter, but knocked down 7 of 10 free throws to keep pace.
“Manhattan’s a very good team, we played them the first game of the year, so we knew that,” Derby coach Caleb Smith said. “We didn’t shoot the ball very well, so that didn’t help us stay with a good team like them. They have a lot of weapons. They’re not an overly impressive-looking team, but they’re really good basketball players.
“They’ve got a shot to beat Heights, I know that.”
Of course, having a shot and actually pulling off the upset are two different things. It’s worth noting that with six losses on the year, this is not the same Heights team that has dominated Class 6A the last decade.
The Falcons are still talented, but were swept by two Wichita City League foes and are vulnerable against teams with good ball handlers and post players.
“They’re a little different than they’ve been, in that they’re mostly guards this year, but that fits right into their pressing defense,” Mall said. “They’re going to trap and press all the time.
“Hopefully, we can play well. They’ve played some good teams, but they’ve struggled a little lately.”
This year, teams with the ball handlers to solve Heights’ press have fared well, while those that struggle with turnovers lose big.
Mall said taking care of the ball is the No. 1 priority against the Falcons, though he said his team lacks the ability to recreate what they’ll see athletically on Saturday.
“It’s really hard, because athletically, we don’t have girls like that,” Mall said. “We’ve had some success against it in the past. We’ve had good passing forwards where we’ve gotten the ball over the top against them.”
Manhattan is set to face Wichita Heights on Saturday at 7 p.m.