ALMA — With a young team that has dealt with a rash of injuries and humbling losses, first-year Riley County head boy’s basketball coach Steve Fritz left the court with a smile on his face after upsetting the Wabaunsee Chargers on the road, 52-49, in Monday’s Class 3A sub-state opener.
The win didn’t come easy, however.
The Falcons got seven straight points — a pair of long jumpers and a 3-pointer — from junior Trace Nelson to lead by nine and force a Wabaunsee timeout midway through the fourth quarter.
That’s when Wabaunsee head coach Dustin Wilson turned the game into a free-throw shooting contest, with Riley County promptly missing 8 of their next 10 free throws. What had been a 10-point lead, the largest of the game for Riley County, quickly shrunk to just a 48-45 lead for the Falcons with 40 seconds to play.
But Riley County didn’t miss again, with Nelson making a pair of free throws on the ensuing inbound pass and Landin Griffith knocking down a pair on the next possession.
“On any team, there are some people who shoot the ball better from the free-throw line better than others, and it just so happened the ones that got to our line, weren’t our better ones,” Fritz said. “But Landin stepped up and made two big ones at the end, and Trace is a solid free-throw shooter.”
After Nelson’s free throws made it 50-46, Wabaunsee’s Nick Terrapin was fouled on a made shot, giving the Chargers the chance to pull within one. He missed the free throw, but Wabaunsee’s Derek Kilian got the offensive rebound. When he went for the putback, the shot was blocked by Griffith and the ball was saved from going out of bounds by sophomore Jackson Wagner right back to Griffith, who was fouled.
Griffith’s two makes from the charity stripe made it 52-48 with 17 seconds to play, forcing Wabaunsee to quickly try and get a bucket on the other end. Kilian’s attempt was off the mark, but the Chargers got the rebound in what quickly turned into a scrum on the court and managed to call a timeout, despite Fritz’s complaints that Wabaunsee didn’t possess the ball.
With 2.6 seconds left, Wabaunsee’s Ian Carroll went to the line, making his first free throw and intentionally missing the second with the rebound going out of bounds back to the Chargers after being tipped around twice, despite only 0.5 seconds coming off the clock.
As time expired, Shane Flach’s 3-point attempt was off the mark, securing the upset for Riley County.
“We needed a little gap there,” Fritz said of his team’s 10-point lead. “If it would have been a three or four-point game the entire second half, I’m not sure we could have held it together. We’re going to have a soft spot in there somewhere. Young teams always do — most teams do. They had one, that’s how we got our lead.”
Riley County (5-15) was led by Nelson’s 18 points, with Griffith adding 12 and Dalton Huey adding 10.
Wabaunsee (11-9) got 21 points from Terrapin, with Flach also in double figures, scoring 14 points, including four 3s.
“They played really well down the stretch,” Fritz said of the Chargers. “They’ve got a really good shooter. (Flach)‘s a great shooter from the outside. We’re trying to contest those and he still hits four or five 3s on us.”
Both teams struggled early in the game scoring the ball, with Wabaunsee leading 7-6 after one quarter. But Riley County played better in the second, taking a four-point lead to halftime.
The Falcons shot 19 of 36 (53 percent) from the floor in the win, while Wabaunsee finished 16 of 42 (38 percent). Wabaunsee won the rebounding battle 31-22.
The win avenged two losses earlier in the season to Wabaunsee, each coming by nine points.
“This is the best we’ve been all year,” Fritz said. “We had a lot of injuries in January, with two or three starters out for an extended period of time. So this is the healthiest we’ve been since early January.”
With the upset win, Riley County will face host Silver Lake at 6 p.m. in Thursday’s semifinals. The Falcons lost both regular-season matchups with the Eagles, but played them close.
“We’ve got a chance, if we play well and keep focused, we can still accomplish everything we wanted to accomplish early in the year,” Fritz said. “The first 20 don’t matter in high school. If you win three straight at sub-state, you’re good. You’re no different than a 20-0 team.”