WAMEGO — The way the Wamego boys’ basketball team played in the first quarter, it would have been easy for the Red Raiders to throw in the towel.
Facing a 21-8 deficit after one quarter and a Nemaha Valley lead that ballooned to as many as 20 in the second period, it seemed as if the visiting Raiders — ranked fourth in Class 3A — would run away with the game.
But the Red Raiders ended the half on an 8-2 run before scoring the first six points of the third quarter to cut Nemaha Valley’s lead to seven. Once they made it a game, they cut the lead all the way down to one before eventually falling to the visiting Raiders, 70-68, as Kyler Alderson’s heave at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
Wamego head coach Troy Hemphill said his team dug itself too deep a hole in the opening quarter.
“I thought we played harder and a little more solid on defense,” Hemphill said. “I thought they had too many easy looks in the first half — I think we were a little disorganized, and our press break wasn’t very organized and we had some turnovers.”
After Nemaha Valley re-extended its lead to 10 heading into the fourth quarter, Trenton York went to work for the Red Raiders. His first 3-pointer of the period cut the Nemaha Valley lead to eight, with his next cutting it to six. Wamego pulled within three points on several occasions midway through the fourth quarter, but Nemaha Valley took a 66-60 lead with 1:30 to play.
After a layup by Miller, York came up big again, swishing another 3 to cut the lead to 67-65 with 45 seconds to play.
Following a Nemaha Valley turnover, Alderson drove to the rim and was fouled, making 1 of 2 free throws to trim the deficit to one, but Nemaha Valley’s Justice McKernan knocked down a pair of free throws to re-extend the lead to three points. The visiting Raiders chose to foul York in the backcourt immediately following the inbound pass with 7 seconds to go.
York swished the first free-throw and tried to intentionally miss the second, arcing the shot high into the air, but it swished through as well, cutting the deficit back to one at 69-68.
“He was trying to miss it — he shot it straight up to try and get it to bounce long,” Hemphill said. “We worked on that a little bit, but it went right through the well, so hey, what can you say?
Wamego fouled, sending Nemaha Valley’s Isaac McWilliams to the line with 3.9 seconds left, where he made the first and missed the second. Alderson got the rebound, dribbled down the court and got a decent shot attempt, but it bounced off the rim, ending the Wamego comeback just two points short.
“We did get a decent look there at the end,” Hemphill said. “So that’s about all you can ask for.”
Wamego had 10 first-half turnovers compared to Nemaha Valley’s five. The Red Raiders struggled against Nemaha Valley’s full-court pressure, leading to easy layups for Caleb Meyer and McKernan at the other end. Making matters worse was foul trouble for big man Eli Miller, who finished with 13 points, 10 of which came in the second half.
“It’s big for us because we drop off so much size-wise,” Hemphill said. “Eli’s a really good player — we have to figure out ways to keep him in the game.”
York led the Red Raiders with 24 points on 7-of-11 shooting — he didn’t miss in the second half — while Miller and Alderson also finished in double-figure scoring with 13 and 12, respectively.
York said Wamego, which finished 26 of 51 from the floor, needs to find consistency shooting the ball.
“The first game it went this way for me, the second game against Holton, it wasn’t a great shooting night as a team,” York said. “Tonight, we got hot late and that’s what sparked our comeback.”
McKernan led the way for Nemaha Valley with 24 points, while Meyer finished with 20 and Evan Hermesch had 10.
Alderson said the Red Raiders didn’t play as a team in the first half, on offense or defense, which led to the deficit. By halftime, they had the problem corrected.
“If we’d have played that way the first half, it would have obviously been a different game,” Alderson said. “But I’m proud of the guys in the way we came back and handled it.”
Despite the close score at the end, Hemphill wasn’t interested in awarding moral victories.
“We’re happy with the effort, but a loss is a loss,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to play a complete game.”