SALINA — For much of the first half on Thursday, it was the perfect storm for the Rose Hill Rockets in the opening round of the Class 4A Division I State Basketball Tournament at the Bicentennial Center.
Rose Hill, which had been bludgeoned twice by McPherson High during the regular season, was down only 21-20 to the two-time defending state champs with 4 minutes to go, the Rockets’ Parker Austin was raining 3-pointers and MHS star Drew Pyle was saddled with two fouls while trying to find his misplaced shot.
But in the blink of an eye, with freshman Jake Alexander serving as the firestarter, MHS closed out the half on a 16-2 blitz for a 37-22 halftime lead. The Bullpups lived off that advantage for a 64-45 victory to advance to the state Final Four for the 12th time in coach Kurt Kinnamon’s 21 years.
MHS, now 22-1 and winners of 70 of its last 72 games, will play Andover Central at 8:15 p.m. Friday in the semifinals. The extremely athletic Jaguars exploded past Wamego 87-60 in the other semifinal of that side of the bracket.
In the earlier games, Paola looked hugely impressive in a 78-43 rout of Coffeyville while Miege, expected to advance from its side of the bracket, was given a push for three quarters by Eudora before coming away for a 55-49 victory.
While it was an uneven performance by the Bullpups, it wasn't totally unexpected to Kinnamon.
"They know what it takes to win a state championship and that, quite honestly, wasn't a state championship effort," Kinnamon said. "I don't think it was so much (lack of) effort, it's a pretty typical first-round game. Really it's the first time we've played an opponent we've seen twice in the regular season and won so handily… I don't think we overlooked them, but I think early on they played harder than we did. It doesn't matter what you win by, as long as you get it done."
The Bullpups shot out to a 19-10 lead, but an Austin-fueled run pulled the Rockets within 21-20. The game turned in the final 4 minutes of the half, though, when MHS unfurled a stretch of four 3-pointers among five field goals, including back-to-back bombs by Alexander.
"That was big to end the half like that and Jake hitting those shots," Kinnamon said. "We tease Jake a lot about being so young and naive. (Assistant) coach (Dustan) Kanitz says he apparently doesn't recognize the situation he's in and that's good because he made some big shots and did a good job for us tonight."
The Bullpups had nice balance as Ben Pyle led four players in double figures with 16 points, while Drew Pyle recovered from his slow start (2 of 11) to score 13, along with grabbing 13 rebounds. Alexander and Spenser Wine added 11 points apiece.
Austin cooled in the second half after scoring 13 points before the break, but did finish with 20. The Rockets finished the season with an 8-15 record.
Kinnamon was impressed with all the winners on the day, especially those on the other side of the bracket as he believes Paola can give Miege a really good game Friday.
"I thought they were both really good," he said. "Paola has got more size than I realized, so they can be a pretty good size matchup with Miege… I told our guys in the locker room we don't want to be playing one of those teams for third place I'll guarantee you that."
MHS (64) — McDaniel 1-7, 0-0, 2; Loecker 2-2, 1-2, 5; D. Pyle 4-15, 3-4, 13; B. Pyle 6-11, 2-2, 16; Wine 5-9, 0-0, 11; Labertew 1-1, 0-0, 2; Jk. Alexander 4-9, 1-3, 11; Spaich 2-4, 0-0, 4. Totals — 25-58, 11-17, 64. 3-pointers — D. Pyle 2, B. Pyle 2, Jk. Alexander 2, Wine 1.
Rose Hill (45) — Pfaff 1-2, 3-6, 6; Bonar 2-8, 1-3, 6; Austin 5-10, 7-11, 20; Cotten 1-5, 0-0, 2; G. Moore 4-5, 0-1, 9; McBride 0-3, 0-0, 0; Forsberg 1-1, 0-0, 2. Totals — 14-34, 11-21, 45. 3-pointers — Austin 3, Pfaff 1, Bonar 1, G. Moore 1.