It had been more than 3 hours after his McPherson High boys had watched Bishop Miege play a Villanova-vs.-Georgetown-like second half to snatch away a potential 14th Bullpup state championship and MHS coach Kurt Kinnamon was still replaying the game in his mind.
“I thought we had them. We were in pretty good shape,” said Kinnamon, whose team led the Stags 25-14 at halftime Saturday night in the Class 4A Division I state championship game at the Tony’s Pizza Events Center in Salina.
It was. That is before the Stags played as close to a perfect half of basketball as a team can play.
It started with the third quarter when Miege — after being mystified by the Bullpups’ new junk defense that was broken out just for this game — started to figure it out. And the MHS offense went into hibernation, as Jake Alexander was the only Bullpup to score in the quarter.
From an 11-point lead to a 4-point deficit in the matter of a quarter. It wasn’t the first time one bad quarter had cost the Bullpups against Miege, but this one hurt the most because this was a senior-laden MHS team that had finished games so well this year.
The numbers were numbing. Miege missed only one — ONE! — shot in the second half. The Stags were 12 of 13 from the field and 5 of 6 from 3-point. They were 14 of 18 from the foul line.
And it wasn’t All-Stater Jeremiah Robinson-Earl doing the major damage, though he was a handful. Nor Joshua Early. It was unsung Spencer Jones, the least-recognized member of the Stags’ skyline.
Jones, who was little more than a blip on the radar when the teams met in December in Kansas City, was 6 of 6 in the second half, 3 of 3 from 3-point. The player MHS practically begged to shoot at the start of the game was shooting fish in a barrel. He was finding the needle in the haystack. He was living the dream. He was channeling his inner LeBron.
Robinson-Earl, who can write his ticket to any school in the country, still was dominant. He scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and managed to play the last quarter-and-a-half without picking up his fifth foul. He’s only a junior and you just wonder after winning three state titles in three years if he’ll pack up and head to a big-time prep school like Oak Hill or Findlay Prep to find more of a challenge.
The Bullpups did a great job on Ezekiel Lopes, who had been a thorn in their side in the past. He was the focus of the newly concocted MHS defense as he scored only 3 points. Early, the chiseled 6-8 and 230-pound power forward, also did little with 2 points and 4 rebounds in 32 minutes. In fact, Early, Lopes and Jeremiah Garrett all played the entire 32 minutes, Jones played 28 minutes and Robinson-Early 27. That five was ridden hard by coach Rich Zych, as Stone Jeffries was the only other player for the Stags and he played 8 1/2 minutes, though he did hit a crucial 3-pointer.
That makes it five wins in a row for the Stags against the Bullpups. This year the margins were 2 and 3. So they’re getting closer, but haven’t beaten them since the 2015 semifinals, 79-68.
What are the chances of a fourth straight meeting next year in the finals? If Robinson-Earl stays, you know the Stags are going to be there again as he would combine with Early and Jones for a devastating inside trio. They lose Lopes and Garrett, but you know capable replacements are out there just waiting in the wings and they may not even been in school yet.
As for MHS, not only does it lose five tremendous seniors — who accounted for 43 of the 54 points on Saturday — but according to Athletic Director Shane Backhus, the chances are very high that MHS will be 5A next year. There’s a huge reshuffle that’s going to take place and eight schools from 4A Division I move up to 5A next year as there will be 36 schools in the class.
Kinnamon will rebuild around Jake Alexander, who could be an All-State All-Class player as he’s one of the best juniors in the state. Cody Stufflebean, a 6-4 sophomore, had a big state tournament and 6-4 junior Aren Trost’s potential excites the Bullpup coaching staff as he can jump and is strong.
The key is finding guards. Jace Kinnamon, Kyler Hoppes and Gabe Hoover all played meaningful minutes this year, but they’ll have to play big minutes next year. Max Alexander, a freshman, was the other Bullpup on the state roster.
There’s some JV players, who if they work on their games, could see many more minutes next year. And there may even be a freshman who could crack the varsity.
It will be a different Bullpup team, for sure. Kinnamon is optimistic it can still win a lot of games. But he also knows there will be a lot more teaching to do than previous years because the five seniors who graduate have been the backbone the last two years and knew just what he wanted every time they stepped on to the court.