Manhattan came into the Mid America Classic with some unfinished business.
Consider that business now finished.
The Indians, who put up such a terrific battle last year in the Classic finals only to come up short against Olathe South, finally cleared the championship hurdle here Saturday night but not before McPherson High put up the fight of a lifetime.
Manhattan closed the game on an 11-3 run to outgut the Bullpups, 44-37. The Indians, the No. 1 seed and No. 4-ranked team in Class 6A, are now 12-1 on the year, while the Bullpups — who had won six in a row — are 8-5. They were seeking their 11th Classic title in the 19 years of the event.
“They’re 12-1 for a reason,” MHS coach Chris Strathman said of the Indians. “They’re an awfully good team. They’ve played a tough schedule. They’re on a really nice roll. I know their only loss is to Great Bend by two on the road, other than that they’re taking care of business. They’re an upperclassmen-dominated team and they know how to play.”
“We really had to battle after the start they had,” Manhattan coach Scott Mall said. “What got me is we talked about two of those plays over and over in pregame ... and we still fell for it and they made it pay off.”
The Bullpups energized their enthusiastic fan base early, raining four 3-pointers to sprint to a 17-10 first-quarter lead. But the Indians turned up the super charger on the defensive end from there, as MHS doggedly worked to score, other than a brilliant performance by Abby Pedersen.
The Tabor signee scored 20 of MHS’ points, but the rest of the team could manage only 17. The physicalness of the Indians kept the Bullpups from scoring effectively inside, as they had only seven 2s to go along with their six 3s.
“Offensively we struggled at times, but that’s going to happen against a really good defensive team that knows how to apply pressure and knows how to take teams away from their strengths a little bit,” Strathman said. “Abby was great tonight. Again, (she) hit some really big shots and we were fortunate enough to actually run the same set a few times for those shots and she was able to get them off.”
MHS took a 25-23 lead into the break and the pace nearly slowed to a crawl in the third quarter, which ended with Manhattan up just 30-29. MHS went the final 6:39 of the quarter without scoring, 5:07 of that with Janae Barnes on the bench with foul trouble as much of what the Bullpups do runs through her versatility.
MHS was still in the game when Pedersen completed a personal 8-0 run with a long 3-pointer that pulled it within 38-37. But it would never score again, as the Indians scored the last six points, with the Bullpups committing some turnovers late that thwarted any chances to get shots off.
“I thought we really knuckled down and worked really hard on the defensive end,” Mall said. “They’re hard to guard because they have so many weapons. And their other girls were doing such a good job of getting penetration and making stuff happen. But our girls just kept working hard. This is a huge step for us. These girls know the history of this tournament. They know what kind of teams play in this and to win it really says something to them about where we’re at and kind of reinforces that we always try to get to that upper echelon, that maybe we’re on the way there.”
All-Tourney picks Darcy Price and Caroline Ballard led Manhattan with 13 and 11 points, respectively, but perhaps the player of the game was Amara Ehie, who came off the bench for 10 points and six rebounds, repeatedly coming up with big plays.
“That’s one of the reasons I like having a girl like that because she brings energy, she brings strength. She seems to come up with a play that’s big,” Mall said.
The Bullpups now travel to Andale Tuesday for a rematch of Friday’s barnburner, won 45-34 by MHS although the game was closer than the score indicates.