While the 55th annual McPherson Invitational will not be remembered for its star power, it will be remembered for its competitive nature.
The very first day of the tournament set the tone, as two of the games were deadlocked at halftime, another was a 2-point game and the finale between the host Bullpups and Blue Valley West found the Bullpups a mere 4 ahead.
Three of those games stayed close to the end, as the Bullpups had to survive by 5, while Shawnee Mission East and Shawnee Heights were 2-point winners. Only Lawrence Free State, as you would expect in a 1-8 matchup, wound up being comfortable at the end as the Firebirds wound up winning by 17.
Friday’s semifinals were both doozies. Shawnee Mission East paid no mind to Lawrence Free State’s No. 1 seed to win by 4, while McPherson High — which seemingly has played nothing but close games this year — had to hold off Shawnee Heights 51-50 as the T-Birds had two great chances at the end for the win, including a point-blank putback.
All three consolation games on Saturday didn’t feature the same pizazz as the first two nights, but I thought Blue Valley West’s win over Manhattan in the fifth-place game was a bit of a surprise. Manhattan had look extremely sharp in Friday’s consolation round and I thought it would carry that momentum over to Saturday, but Blue Valley West had other ideas behind scoring machine Spencer Bain.
Saturday’s championship game between McPherson and Shawnee Mission East was a repeat of last year’s semifinal donnybrook when the Bullpups' crowd literally willed the team victory after being down big.
There was the same intensity from the teams in this one, but perhaps because of the cold weather outside (or the fact the Roundhouse was like an igloo), we didn’t have a typical Roundhouse crowd that sends the thermometer in the building through the roof.
The Bullpups looked especially sharp early, using an 8-0 run to go up 16-10, but East answered with a 9-0 blast. The Lancers also finished strong at the end of the half for a 28-25 lead, though this is an MHS team that has become accustomed to being down at the half.
Sure enough, the Bullpups came out strong in the third quarter, going up 4 and had a chance to make it 7 when it appeared an And-1 opportunity was going to occur. But Cody Stufflebean was called for a charge on a play that MHS coach Kurt Kinnamon thought was pivotal.
The other key call came with 3:28 left with Stufflebean again in the middle. This time he was fouled and East standout Andy Maddox disagreed, resulting in a technical. But Stufflebean made 1 of 2 and Jake Alexander then made 1 of 2 on the T before MHS then turned it over on the ensuring possession. Instead of a spate of points, MHS settled for just 2 and led 46-42.
East exhaled at that point and took off on a 9-2 run to close the game. The Bullpups had numerous good looks late, including Jace Kinnamon's layup with 25 seconds that would have given them the lead as it went down and came back up. East wound up closing the game out at the foul line for the 52-48 win.
The Bullpups certainly were a better team exiting the tournament than they were entering it. They played three bigger schools and all were tough, grind-it-out games. As Kurt Kinnamon said after the game, this team has so little margin for error that it has to maximize everything it can.
Something the Bullpups can do moving forward is get Stufflebean more touches. He was 15 of 19 from the field and averaged 13 points. He also was second in the tournament in rebounding as he showed he can be a force.
MHS has two tough ones next week, at home against traditional power Wichita Collegiate and then an always brutal game at Andale, where last year the Bullpups won on a late basket by Mason Alexander. MHS then plays four league games in a row before going to Lawrence to take on Free State before coming home to wrap up the season against Augusta. MHS currently is No. 8 in the 5A West standings.