Two chances for two banners. From Day One, that’s all that McPherson High’s basketball teams wanted.
All that stood in the way Saturday for both Bullpup teams was Bishop Miege, that mighty basketball factory out of the Kansas City area.
If both games would have been declared over at halftime, MHS would indeed have raised two banners this coming December in the annual ceremony.
But in games that were eerily and hauntingly similar, both Miege teams started fast in the third quarter and forced MHS to play catch-up and, ultimately, put both Stag teams at the foul line where they hardly missed.
I really believed going into the day the better chance for the Bullpup teams to win came on the girls’ side. When Miege defeated MHS 62-45 back in early December, the Bullpups had yet to find themselves as Taylor Robertson, Mandi Cooks and Emma Yowell were the only players who had logged considerable minutes in the past. The Stags, coming off their third straight state championship, blindsided the Bullpups with a blistering press that flummoxed them into 22 first-half turnovers and sent MHS to a 25-point deficit.
Once the shellshock had worn off, MHS outscored Miege in the second half of that game, something it could store in the back of its mind should the teams meet again.
And they would.
In the first half Saturday, MHS executed perfectly. It got out to a 6-point lead before going into the break up 29-24. It committed just 6 turnovers.
But the Stags’ pressure defense finally caused the Bullpups to wither, even if it was ever so brief. And Hunter Bentley, a possible Top-5 All-State pick — as well as MHS’ Robertson — made the two key plays, coming up with two steals that she converted into 5 quick points and the Bullpups basically had to chase the rest of the game.
If the game had been reduced to 2-on-2, the Bullpups would have prevailed. Robertson and Mandi Cooks — who could join Robertson on the 4A Division I first team — combined for 50 points as Robertson scored 30 and Cooks added 20. Bentley had 27 for the Stags and uber-quick guard Johnni Gonzalez added 22 as MHS didn’t have the foot speed to stay with her.
The unsung player for Miege was Jenna Harms, who was only in the game because of foul trouble. She drained 3 3s from the corner and those 9 points were unexpected, MHS coach Chris Strathman said.
I strongly believe we could see this very same matchup in next year’s finals. Miege is Miege, which means it will be back for a fifth straight title appearance, but Bentley’s absence will be immense. But you also know the Stags will replenish their threadbare roster — only seven players saw action, two of them less than 7 minutes — with All-Star talent.
MHS must replace Yowell and Jordan Bruner, but the Bullpups have three starters back and the before-mentioned Robertson (named today as the Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year) and Cooks will be two of the Top 10 players in the state. Then you have an MHS JV team that was undefeated, a C-team that was undefeated and an 8th-grade team that was undefeated, so the bin is busting. MHS should be deeper than any team in the state and will use this loss as inspiration to get back to Salina.
As for the Bullpup boys, I wasn’t sure how their game would play out. I knew the Stags weren’t 33 points better, which was the margin in the December meeting.
But I also knew this was probably the closest team to the 1977 Wichita Heights Falcons that’s come down the pike in a long time. As Bullpup coach Kurt Kinnamon said, their front line actually is bigger than KU’s.
The first half was epic Bullpups, as Kinnamon and assistant coach Treg Fawl devised a master defensive strategy that flummoxed the Stags as they scored only 28 points after scoring 49 in the first half of the December meeting. Even though they made 12 of 16 shots, they had to work hard until they could get a layup or dunk. Not many teams go into halftime down 29-28 after shooting 75 percent.
The second half was going to be about poise and for the first 3 minutes the Bullpups lost it with some quick, difficult shots. They were shots they often had made this year, but the Stags’ length proved bothersome as often MHS’ players couldn’t quite get their feet set.
Francesco Baddochi, a 6-6 forward with a wingspan of a 6-10 player, was tremendous as he caused a matchup problem. MHS was so concerned with keeping 6-8 Jeremiah Robinson-Earl off the glass that Baddochi was able to get inside for key offensive rebounds. And this was a veteran Miege team as four of the five starters were on the floor for important minutes in last year’s championship game against the Bullpups, which went the Stags’ way 69-59.
Miege must replace Baddochi, Semaj Ray and feisty guard Landry Weber. It had so much talent that Joseph Gleason — who I thought was the MVP of last year’s title game with 14 points and 13 rebounds — saw the floor for just 5:42. Joshua Early, a chiseled 6-7 power forward who reportedly is being highly recruited, never even got off the pine and he would be All-State caliber for other teams. The Stags’ starters played basically the entire game, a testament to their conditioning.
The Bullpups have nothing to hang their heads about. They came light-years from that night in mid-January when they dropped to 6-4 and scored a paltry 43 points against Andale before a stunned Roundhouse crowd. The biggest strides came in team chemistry and defense, as the first 10 games they seemed to play more as individuals and there wasn’t near the passion on the defensive end as there was over the final 15 games that produced a 14-1 record.
And the best thing? Not a senior on the team. MHS comes back intact and you have to believe it’s going to be far better next year with added maturity and strength. It will have a monster senior class, the biggest since Kinnamon’s very first year. Look for Andover Central to join MHS and Miege as the dominant teams as the field could have a familiar look.
Ben Pyle will certainly be among the Top 5 players in Kansas next year. Point guard Mason Alexander will be highly regarded and the sky is still the limit for Jake Alexander, just a sophomore. Thomas Diggs and Drew Labertew are the ultimate role players whose valuable contributions sometimes get overlooked and Jayse Alexander and Wyatt Seidl brought their brand of physicality off the bench for a change of pace. The other five players on the state roster will be better simply because they'll be a year older.
MHS’ teams produced some memorable moments and just think, it could only get better next year. And Miege is probably thinking the same thing.