DODGE CITY — Payton Stephens was a freshman the last time Manhattan High participated in the Tournament of Champions. A first-round loss two years ago sent the Indians to the consolation side of the bracket the next two days.
Stephens made sure the Indians started their three-day trip in the western cow town the right way this time — with an overtime victory on Thursday against one of the more dominant teams in the state in recent years.
The MHS junior scored 25 points — including the first six points in OT — to lead the Indians to a 55-46 win over Wichita Heights in the first round of the 71st Annual Tournament of Champions at United Wireless Arena.
Manhattan will play Hays in one of tonight’s semifinal games, beginning at 7. Hays defeated Hutchinson on Thursday afternoon.
“This is huge for us,” Manhattan head coach Tim Brooks said. “This is a tough, tough tournament. Heights is a great program and it’s been that way since I moved to this state 25 years ago. They’ve always been one of those upper-echelon programs, so this win is good for our guys and will make this weekend a lot more fun when you play at night.”
The Falcons, ranked fifth in Class 6A, sent the game into overtime with a pair of baskets at the rim in the final 40 seconds of regulation — a putback on an offensive rebound and then a lay-in after an MHS turnover — erasing what was once a five-point Indians lead midway through the fourth quarter.
“We could have put the game away in regulation,” said Stephens, who made 11 of 15 from the field and grabbed nine rebounds. “We had the lead, but we just couldn’t finish and pull away at the end. We knew we had to fight, dig deep (in overtime) to pull out the win.”
That’s exactly what the Indians did, holding the Falcons scoreless for the first 3 1/2 minutes of the extra four-minute OT to take control of the game for good.
Manhattan outscored the Falcons 11-2 in the extra period, including the first six points from Stephens on back-to-back field goals and a pair of free throws. The Indians closed the game by making 7 of 10 at the free-throw line. The Falcons were just 1 of 9 from the field in OT.
“Our guys in the zone were very active and I thought our length caused Heights some problems,” Brooks said. “It kind of kept them back on their heels a little bit, but when they did get the ball in the lane it was tough for us because of their quickness.”
Manhattan (7-2) used two straight baskets from Stephens at the end of the second quarter to take a 26-23 halftime lead. It was an up-and-down quarter for the Indians, as they trailed by as many as four early and then led by as many five points midway through.
Heights (7-2) was kept in the game by the long-range shooting of Semaj Hervey, who buried a pair of 3-pointers and had a short jumper in the period — giving the Falcons a 23-22 lead on his second trey with 1:26 to go before half. Hervey finished with a team-high 14 points.
“For the most part, we forced them to shoot jump shots,” Brooks said. ” Even though they made a bunch of them early, we were hoping it wouldn’t be a continuing trend.”
The only thing that was a continuing trend was Stephens, who dominating the Falcons inside all day. He scored 16 of his 25 points in the first half.
“He’s got such good footwork and such good creativity down low — he was so huge for us,” Brooks said. “He’s been getting better and better. He rebounded the ball well. He passed the ball well out of the post. He shares the ball well.
“It was a big-time game for him tonight.”
Alex Stitt also scored in double figures for the Indians, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers.