When you think back on the now-22 McPherson Invitational championships the Bullpups have won, Saturday’s 63-54 victory over Class 6A power Lawrence Free State certainly has to be knocking on the door of the all-time Top 5.
They call it the championship game for a reason.
Free State came in 9-1 and ranked No. 5 in Class 6A. It promptly went out and shot 57 percent from the field and did not miss a free throw the entire game.
It still wasn’t enough.
The Bullpups and Firebirds played a game that could have been contested in a phone booth — it was that close for the majority of the night — instead 2,000 rabid fans, most adorned in Bullpup red and white. Yet, the Firebirds overcame the homecourt hostility to lead 44-41 late in the third quarter.
But then everything changed. Drew Labertew, a sophomore off the bench, made the most important 3-point shot of his career to tie the game. Then another sophomore, the Swiss Army knife Ben Pyle, rained a 22-foot parabola just before the third-period buzzer blasted to give MHS a 47-44 lead.
“How many guys made huge shots for us?” MHS coach Kurt Kinnamon quiered.
Longtime Bullpup supporters knew at that point there was no way the team was going to lose as the “McPherson Magic” was back. MHS never gave up the lead the rest of the game and as the Firebirds could never force it into mistakes as the Bullpups committed just three — yes, three – turnovers the entire game to improve to 11-1 on the season.
The teams played racehorse basketball for a quarter, deadlocked at 18-all. Then some of the adrenaline wore off with the Firebirds taking a 28-27 lead into the break and again, little separated the teams until those quarter-ending treys. A 3-pointer by Marcus McDaniel later pushed it to 10 and he then hit another shot as the Bullpups were able to close out a team that Kinnamon believes will make a serious run at the 6A title.
The Pyle brothers gave virtuoso performances. Ben, who had struggled scoring in the first two games of the tourney, saved his best for when it mattered with 23, including 11 of 14 at the line after missing his first two. Drew scored 20, making half of his 18 attempts, many of them difficult stop-and-pops. Three-pointers were a difference as MHS made seven to just four for Free State, a nine-point differential.
“Just a really, really good effort. Effort is so important,” Kinnamon said, as he also praised the work of players like Spenser Wine and Jacob Loecker for making hustle plays and getting their hands on a lot of loose balls. “Overall I thought it was a great will to win.”
Kinnamon could only applaud the effort of Free State’s Hunter Gudde, who kept his team in the game with 25 points after he had scored 37 on Friday.
“He’s thick, but he can create space for himself and he can get to the free throw line,” Kinnamon said. “He doesn’t miss free throws and he’s a really good player.”
Free State certainly prepared the Bullpups well for the rest of the season.
“What we ran into is somebody who is physical and athletic enough that they don’t let you do your stuff... we don’t always win those physical battles,” Kinnamon said. “You talk about which team was tougher, I thought down the stretch we were extremely tough. Free State... that’s a team you’re going to see in the 6A tournament. I won’t be surprised at all.”
Free State coach Sam Stroh had no complaints about his team’s effort, except maybe for the one stretch at the end of the third quarter.
“We talked in practice that this (MHS) is a team that doesn’t beat themselves,” he said. “You’re going to have turnovers, but we had 16 and they only had three. We played good for about three quarters, but then kind of lost our composure a little bit. I give the Pyle brothers a lot of credit. We got caught up on a couple of screens and they made some big 3s. The air kind of went out of our balloon.”
It was a matchup of the past two Invitational champions, as the Bullpups repeated their title from last year while the Firebirds were the 2014 winner. They won’t be here next year, but return in 2018.
“I told Shane (MHS Athletic Director Backhus) that we want to come back every year, not every-other year,” Stroh said. “It’s a great tournament and great experience. We learned a lot about ourselves this weekend.”
MHS must now come off its emotional high as it has tough customer Andale coming to town on Tuesday in a renewal of what has become a highly competitive series.