SALINA — You could call it first-game jitters.
Or perhaps it was the large crowd, or just general nervousness. Wamego coach Jim Page thought it was the amount of space behind each backboard.
Whatever it was, the Wamego Red Raiders struggled to find their shot early in the game against eighth-seeded Pratt, which despite the 54-36 final score, was within three points in the third quarter.
“I have several friends who have been to the state tournament call me and kind of warned me that it’s going to be tough, that first game, especially since we haven’t been here for so long,” Page said. “That first game is tough and they’re a good 14-9 team, they really are. We didn’t overlook them by any means.”
Wamego (23-1) plays fourth-seeded Fort Scott (18-5) today, with the winner of McPherson (20-3) and Paola (19-4) waiting in the championship game should the Red Raiders advance.
The Red Raiders were able to get past the Greenbacks on Thursday behind Kaylee Page’s 20 point, 12 rebound effort, with Lanie Page adding 15 points, including 11 in the first quarter.
But the way this one started, it looked as if the first team to score 30 would win running away. The Red Raiders missed their first 10 shots before Lanie finally converted an old-fashioned three-point play to score the game’s first points, for either team, at the 3:31 mark of the first quarter.
Pratt answered right back with a 3-pointer by Payton Hoeme, who scored a team-high 13 points, just 30 seconds later to tie the game. The Red Raiders took control behind Lanie’s 11-point scoring burst in the opening quarter, leading 13-3 after one.
But the Greenbacks fought back, regaining some momentum in the second quarter behind a pair of 3-pointers by Stonie Flemming to cut the deficit to seven points. Pratt used the long ball to stay in the game all quarter, all while neutralizing Kaylee, who finished the half with four points on 2-of-11 shooting while picking up her second foul near the end of the half. For the Red Raiders, it was Rikki Alderson leading the way in the second quarter, knocking down a pair of 3s, with Lakyn Rowden adding another. Wamego went to halftime with a 28-21 lead.
Jim Page said he hopes his team’s shooting issues to start this game are a thing of the past.
“I really think that shooting in most high school gyms, the wall is 10 feet behind the backboard,” Jim said. “Here, you can’t even see the wall. And I think that depth perception really is tough for kids to get used to. Hopefully we’re over that now.”
In the third quarter, both teams went cold again, with the first field goal coming at the 4:04 mark on a jumper by Hoeme to key a 6-0 run by the Greenbacks that cut the Wamego lead to three, 30-27.
That’s when Kaylee finally took over.
The 6-foot-2 junior was determined to play more aggressively, taking the ball to the rim and drawing plenty of contact in the process. Wamego led 38-29 after three quarters and outscored Pratt by nine in the final quarter to win comfortably. Kaylee finished the half 10 of 14 from the charity stripe while scoring 16 of her 20 points in the second half.
Jim said the plan was to try and get into Pratt’s bench as the Greenback fouls began to pile up.
“They had some kids in foul trouble, so we were trying to take advantage of that too, to go inside,” he said. “I think both of their bigs had three fouls on them, and so you have to go at those shot blockers.”
Hoeme, who stands at 6-foot-2, had six blocked shots in the game and was wreaking havoc against Wamego’s shorter players most of the game. But foul trouble relegated her to the bench when Pratt needed her most.
“I think (Hoeme) had six blocks in the first half, so you just have to keep going at them,” Jim said. “You can’t work outside-in, you have to get some stuff on the inside, so that was our goal.”
Kaylee said after her lackluster first half that her goal was to help the team by doing the little things.
“It’s different, and the gym is huge,” Kaylee said. “I had to find a way to get myself in a rhythm, because otherwise I was hurting my team. Even like getting second-chance shots, or rebounding and passing it out to get my team another opportunity, playing good defense — I was trying to affect the game in other ways.”
With the win over Pratt, Wamego is assured of at least two more games this year, including today’s matchup with Fort Scott. The Mercury will be webcasting Friday’s game and Saturday’s championship should the Red Raiders advance.
Jim said part of Wamego’s trouble putting away Pratt stemmed from a taxing set of games last week at sub-state.
“I think we’re still just a little bit weary from last week,” Jim said. “Playing Hayden there and then Holton back to back really stretched and pushed us. And this is the first time any of these kids have been to state, so it’s a new experience. That first round is just to get through it and get on to the next round and play another one.”
Kaylee said with the first game out of the way, she expects the team to play even better today and Saturday.
“For everybody, it’s our first time at state, we’ve got our first-game jitters out of the way,” she said. “We know what it’s like to play in this gym and in this kind of atmosphere. I’m pretty confident.”