MHS Invitational field had lots of depth

By Steve Sell
January 27, 2020

The 56th  annual McPherson Invitational Basketball Tournament certainly experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

The highs certainly, however, outweighed the lows.

Among the highs was the depth of the field. The Top 6 teams were of high quality, probably as deep or deeper as in recent tournaments. Even in Saturday’s seventh-place game between winless teams Wichita North and Topeka Seaman, the game was emotionally charged and highly competitive. Either of these two teams would finish in the upper half of AVCTL Division III.

Another high was the quality of games in the evening session on both Friday and Saturday. I thought the semifinal game between Lawrence Free State and Derby was top shelf, as these schools have brought their intense football rivalry over to the hardcourt.

And while Bishop Carroll’s semifinal rout of Blue Valley wasn’t close on the scoreboard, the extraordinary execution with which the Golden Eagles played with had people talking throughout the day on Saturday  everywhere I went as they turned in close to a perfect game.

The championship game itself, for those who attended, kept fans on the edge of their seats. Carroll star Tanner Mans went out in the first half with an apparent concussion and his team still was able to construct a 10-point over Free State.

But the Firebirds didn’t quit and showed a lot of grit by slicing the lead to a single point in the final 2 minutes before worthy tourney MVP Alex Littlejohn made a difficult shot to push it back to 3.

I was a little surprised at that point that Free State held for the final shot as it’s difficult to make a 3 when the opponent knows that’s what you need. As it turned out, the Firebirds never got a shot off as Carroll defended expertly and wound up with a steal and score just before the final buzzer for a 44-39 win.

There’s a lot of talk about this Carroll team perhaps running the Class 5A table. I don’t think any team could have touched the Golden Eagles on Friday, they were that good. They have a three-headed monster with Littlejohn, Mans and sniper-shooting guard Enrique Lankford and hopefully Mans won’t be out too long. But the supporting cast knows its role and came up with many big plays.

As for the lows, it was one of those rare occasions when the homestanding Bullpups lost in the first round and played the final two days in the afternoon bracket. It’s only the third time that’s happened since 1983.

I’ve always maintained there’s more pressure on the Bullpups in this game than any other since interest in the tournament depends on them winning in the first round. There wasn’t a big crowd on Thursday against Blue Valley, but certainly one that was spirited. But Friday’s and Saturday’s attendance fell off, which is unfortunate because out-of-town teams come here having heard legendary stories of throngs of fans in attendance.

The Bullpups, though, do earn a spot on the “high” side as they bounced back strong with wins over Class 6A schools Wichita North and Junction City. MHS won’t see teams with that kind of length and bounce again until the postseason as even though both had lesser records, they played a style that forced MHS to adjust. It was a speed and style they had only seen earlier this year from Kansas City Piper and maybe Andover.

The Bullpups hopefully can win out to get to 16-4 and earn a home playoff berth. Class 5A is really loaded this year as MHS currently is tied with Great Bend for seventh in the Western Division. Carroll and Andover are currently undefeated, while Goddard Eisenhower and Hays occupy spots 3 and 4. Also ahead of MHS is 3-loss Salina South and Kapaun, which has four losses but played one more game.

MHS has eight games left, starting with Tuesday’s make-up game at Circle. It has five league games after that, along with non-league games against Andale and Wichita Collegiate, both programs dripping with tradition.