The win: MHS girls hold on to capture first-ever state title

By Maria McIlwain

WICHITA — Ask around on the Manhattan girls basketball team, and you’ll probably hear that there wasn’t any doubt.

Not when the Indians’ substantial lead dwindled throughout the fourth quarter and shrank to nothing with just seconds left on the clock against Derby in the 6A state championship game.

There was no need for it, anyway. Haleigh Harper found Kennedy Wilson under the basket, and the senior forward nailed the game-winning layup with just 13 seconds left, sealing Manhattan’s first-ever state title, 44-42.

“I was just praying that the ball would go into the basket, and that I wasn’t going to miss it,” Wilson said.

Senior guard Gigi McAtee said the win felt “surreal.”

“That was the greatest feeling, when that buzzer sounded and we won that game,” she said. “I know it got pretty close there, but I had full faith in all the girls that we could get that done.”

But first, Manhattan (24-1) dominated.

The Indians struck early, rattling off back-to-back 3-pointers from McAtee and Chrissy Carr, but that was it for either team for about four minutes until Kennedy Brown put the Panthers on the board with two minutes and 41 seconds left in the opening period. Carr recorded a double-double for the Indians, leading the team with 14 points and 11 rebounds. McAtee also finished in double figures with 10 points.

Neither team mustered much offense in the second quarter at first. Both teams were playing fierce defense, but Derby (20-5) got within five points of Manhattan after a free throw and layup from Sydney Nilles. Nilles led the Panthers with 14 points, while Kennedy Brown finished with 13 and Tor E Alford added eight.

Brown, who recorded 19 points in the sub-state semifinal, was held to three firsthalf points in part because of the way she was being guarded by Kennedy and Kia Wilson. Kennedy Wilson said they were trying to keep the ball out of Brown’s hands throughout the game. Mall wanted the forwards to prevent her from pulling down rebounds.

“I thought our inside girls did a great job on Kennedy Brown and getting in position and not giving her easy baskets,” Mall said. “For the most part, we boxed her out on the boards, and that was one of our goals.”

Manhattan held Derby scoreless for about five minutes as its lead grew into double figures, closing out the first half on a 9-0 run to go into the break up, 26-10.

“Mostly, we needed to keep playing defense like we’d been playing,” Mall said. “We needed to use our patience on offense and make sure we got a good look every time … the game wasn’t over. We had 16 minutes left we had to play.”

Derby’s press kicked into high gear in the second half, forcing most of Manhattan’s 26 turnovers as the game seemed to get more physical as time went on.

“I think that they were just putting more pressure on us than we had that game, and we just weren’t quite ready for it,” Wilson said. “But we stepped up, and we got done what we needed to get done.”

The Panthers made it a 12-point game before Manhattan pulled away with six unanswered points. Derby threatened again toward the end of the period, but Megan Worthington hit four free throws to give Manhattan a comfortable lead going into the last eight minutes.

Manhattan couldn’t seem to get out of the backcourt at times in the fourth quarter. The Indians’ first four points in the period came off free throws by McAtee and Harper, after which they were held scoreless for nearly five minutes. Several different combinations wound up on the court as Manhattan got into foul trouble.

“We would get so close to making a play to get the lead back up, and it wouldn’t work out,” Mall said. “We made some choices on offense that we’d like to have back … you just kept thinking, ‘OK, we’ve made plays all season long.’” Derby used Manhattan’s drought to rattle off 18 straight points and tie the game before Wilson hit Manhattan’s only field goal of the quarter to pull away with the win.

“I had confidence that we would pull through and pull ourselves together and get it done,” Wilson said.

From the beginning of the season, winning a state title was a goal for the Indians, and Wilson said reaching that goal was the perfect way to end the season.

“It feels amazing, definitely,” she said. “It’s a good way to leave.”

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