COUNCIL GROVE — Eager to celebrate, Silver Lake’s girls burst from their locker room barely 60 seconds after they entered.
The Eagles high-fived teammates, hugged family members and took turns posing with their sub-state championship plaque on the court at Council Grove High School.
Meanwhile, Riley County’s girls decompressed inside their own locker room. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Twenty-five.
After Saturday’s 47-39 loss to Silver Lake in the sub-state championship, the Falcons (16-5) needed time to grieve their season, their seniors and a state tournament trip that never was.
“Every team puts a lot of time and effort into this,” Riley County coach Harold Oliver said. They spend a lot of time together. “When it comes to an end, it has an impact.”
The Falcons’ season was not supposed to end Saturday. They entered the sub-state title game unbeaten (2-0) against Silver Lake this season, with both wins by double-digit margins.
But as Oliver noted, it’s hard to beat a conference opponent three times. Silver Lake coach Kyler Porter knew Oliver’s personnel as well as Oliver did.
So despite a team-high 10 points from senior Ames Burton, Riley County became Silver Lake’s (12-10) second upset victim this postseason (The Eagles upset top-seeded Osage City to advance to Saturday’s title game).
With the Falcons trailing 42-34 late in the fourth quarter, sophomore CJ Rignell provided one more spark of hope.
Rignell’s 3-pointer trimmed the deficit to five with 1:17 to play. The Eagles missed a free throw on each of their next two possessions, but Riley County couldn’t capitalize.
With 41.5 seconds remaining, Jessi Brummett converted a runner after being fouled, but missed the free throw. Ashtyn Kulp grabbed the offensive rebound but stepped out of bounds.
Ten seconds later, Burton wrestled a loose ball from a crowd under Silver Lake’s basket, but she missed the put-back. With 16.3 seconds to play, Rignell launched one more jumper, but like too many of the Falcons’ other attempts Saturday, the shot bounced off the rim.
“We just didn’t shoot well,” Oliver said. “We had a lot of open looks, particularly in the first half. We just didn’t make them.”
The Falcons led for just 3:32 against Silver Lake. Eagles guard McKinley Kruger’s 3-pointer with 40 seconds to play in the third quarter gave them a 30-28 lead they never relinquished.
Kruger finished with 12 points. Eagles forward MaKenzie McDaniel led all scorers with 15.
“She’s a tough guard down low,” Oliver said of McDaniel. “(She is) big, challenging to get around.”
At 3:55 p.m., about 35 minutes after Oliver’s Falcons had entered their locker room, they emerged. The gym already had been cleared. Players and coaches from the second game of Saturday’s sub-state doubleheader entered as they exited.
The Falcons hugged their families outside the school, but they did not high-five. And their sub-state runner-up plaque was nowhere in sight.
Seniors Burton, Brummett and Kulp never will wear the blue-and-white basketball jerseys again. Oliver credited his seniors for their unselfishness and called them “integral” to the program’s success.
Returners like Rignell have the luxury of next season. But until then, Saturday’s loss will sting. Oliver hopes he can teach the Falcons how to build on their 2020-21 sub-state experience next season. But first, they’re learning how to manage the pain.
“I think more than anything, you learn to deal with things when they don’t go your way,” Oliver said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s also part of the competitive arena.”