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Late defense preserves MHS boys’ win over Blue Jays

By Grant Guggisberg

JUNCTION CITY — It certainly wasn’t pretty, but Manhattan High boys’ basketball coach Tim Brooks didn’t seem to mind Friday night.

In a low-possession game with both teams struggling offensively, the Indians got a strong defensive effort down the stretch, squeaking out a 35-32 win against rival Junction City with a defensive stand in the final possession that Brooks said showcased his team’s toughness.

“This is a tough environment,” Brooks said. “When (Jonathan) Wilds got going there and started making those 3s, we knew it was going to be tough. We buckled down. We showed signs of a tough, tough basketball team tonight.”

The Indians led most of the game, but saw Junction City close the gap to just a bucket for much of the final few minutes of the fourth quarter. The two teams went back and forth until the Indians eventually went to a stall offense with a one-point lead as Junction City was content to sit in a zone defense and run clock.

Finally, with less than a minute to play, the Blue Jays got aggressive, fouling twice before reaching the bonus and sending Pierson McAtee to the line for a one and one.

He missed, giving Junction City the ball down 33-32.

After a non-shooting foul, the Blue Jays looked to get an open shot for Wilds off a ball screen, but the Manhattan defense was solid and Wilds’ shot missed everything, giving the Indians the ball with 1.9 seconds remaining and a one-point lead.

Gabe Awbrey sunk a pair of free throws on the ensuing foul to represent the final margin. Awbrey was also the primary defender on Wilds, who finished with 11 points but hit a pair of 3s in the fourth quarter to help even up the score.

“He really gutted it out and accepted his challenge,” Brooks said of Awbrey. “It’s not an easy thing - Wilds is a tough guard.”

At the end of a back-and-forth first half, Junction City took a three-point halftime lead on a 3-pointer by Wilds at the buzzer.

But Manhattan responded in the third quarter, end the period on a 10-0 run with Alex Stitt scoring eight of his team-high 12 points in the third, including a pair of 3-pointers late in the period that helped shift the momentum in the Indians’ favor.

“He played really well,” Brooks said of Stitt’s night. “He was a good floor general, he tried to get us into offense against that zone, he was fairly patient and his defense was good. He’s really accepting his role.

“I tried to take him out there at the start of the fourth quarter and he looked at me like I was crazy, so he stayed in and played the whole fourth quarter and showed a whole lot of toughness.”

Manhattan was led by Stitt’s 12, with Payton Stephens adding 10 points and Darian Taylor and Pierson McAtee each chipping in five.

Danny Thornton led Junction City with 13 points, while Wilds added 11.

Manhattan (6-2, 3-2 Centennial) outscored Junction City 12-2 in the third quarter to take a seven-point lead, the largest by either team all night, but the Blue Jays were able to get back into it in the fourth quarter, hitting three 3s to chip away at Manhattan’s lead.

Manhattan shot 13 of 28 (46 percent) from the floor, but only 2 of 7 from long range and 7 of 12 from the free-throw line.

Against the Blue Jays’ zone defense, Manhattan struggled at times to get good looks, though on several occasions, they simply missed open shots.

“We got some good looks, we just weren’t knocking them down,” Brooks said of his team’s zone offense. “We didn’t attack as much early on as I wanted to, but it sure helps when you make some outside shots.”

Junction City (4-4, 2-2) finished 13 of 42 (30 percent) from the floor, but 6 of 18 from beyond the arc. The Blue Jays did not attempt a free throw as Manhattan committed just seven fouls all night.

“I thought we were smarter, especially when the ball got inside, we weren’t doing a whole lot of slapping and reaching,” Brooks said. “We talked about guarding inside and doing the work early, and I thought our guys worked for position and didn’t just let them catch down low where they wanted to.”

In a game with a raucous crowd well-represented on both sides and a game filled with pressure situations, Brooks was pleased with the way his team played.

“We responded so well tonight, especially in this environment,” he said. “We were tentative early, we were tight early, we were hyped early, but when we settled down and started playing, we were pretty good.”

Manhattan now gears up for the Dodge City Tournament of Champions next week, with the opening game on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. against Wichita Heights.

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