HAYS — Everyone knew what was going to happen.
With Saturday night’s Class 4A Division I sub-state championship game between arch-rivals McPherson High and Buhler tied at 49-all, the Crusaders held the ball for the final shot to perhaps decide who would be moving on to Salina next Thursday.
According to the script, after a timeout with 10 seconds left, the ball would be in the hands of Buhler All-Stater Jessica Steffen and she would make one of her patented charges to the basket.
On cue, Steffen went roaring to the hoop. Slight contact. A whistle. A foul.
It went her way and she bagged both free throws with 4.2 seconds left to give her team the lead and she then stole the inbounds pass to preserve the Crusaders’ 51-49 victory.
The heart-breaking loss for the Bullpups, who had defeated the Crusaders by the same score just eight days earlier, left their final record at 17-5.
To make matters more sickening from MHS’ standpoint, a 7-15 Rose Hill team will be playing at state, one the Bullpups obliterated twice during the regular season.
This was clearly the most crushing loss in Chris Strathman’s 10 years as head coach.
“I’m really proud of the kids, first of all,” he said. “They gave a tremendous effort tonight. They did all that we asked them to do. Buhler just made a couple of plays down the stretch and made a couple of shots. Steffen’s 3 and her free throws at the end was the difference.”
Buhler got a favorable draw for state, drawing Labette County in the first round and being on the opposite side of Miege, the prohibitive favorite. There is the matter of 22-0 Paola in the semifinals, but with the gritty Steffen leading the way, the 18-4 Crusaders have to like their chances.
This game was decided at the foul line. MHS was whistled for 23 fouls in the first three quarters alone and Buhler finished the game making 22 of 26 free throws while MHS, despite pounding the ball repeatedly inside, shot only 8, making 7.
“That’s a pretty big difference in the free throw part of the game,” Strathman said.
The final foul that sent Steffen to the line was borderline at best, but the real turning point may have been the third quarter when Buhler closed on a 7-2 run for a 38-34 lead.
But MHS wouldn’t go away.
Freshman Taylor Robertson’s 11 fourth-quarter points, including a couple of late 3-pointers, helped the Bullpups tie it at 49-all.
Steffen, though, made the play of the game as she has exorcised her past demons against McPherson this year after being so frustrated last year in three straight losses.
The Crusaders basically were a three-player team, as Steffen scored 25, Bullpup killer Kellie Burns had 14 (going 6 of 6 from the field and 2 of 2 at the line) and Alex Keller had nine. They accounted for 48 of the Crusaders’ points and 24 of their 27 shots.
Robertson scored 18 and Mandi Cooks 17 for the Bullpups as the dynamic freshman duo combined for 13 of 21 from the field, but the rest of the team was 6 of 19.
The game was the last for MHS seniors Madison Hoffman, Bri Cooks and Cassidy Wedel.
“In 20 years (10 as an assistant) this is the first sub-state final when I’ve had to go in and talk to the seniors after a loss,” Strathman said. “First time. We’ve been awfully fortunate and very blessed... the girls don’t have any reason at all to hang their heads.”
With Robertson and Mandi Cooks among the returnees and six others who played key minutes also coming back, the Bullpups should be right in the state talk next year.
MHS (49) — B. Cooks 1-2, 0-0, 2; Yowell 2-4, 0-0, 6; Collins 1-2, 0-0, 2; Hoffman 1-4, 0-0, 2; Schieferecke 1-7, 0-0, 2; Robertson 6-12, 4-4, 18; M. Cooks 7-9, 3-4, 17; Wedel 0-0, 0-0, 0; Ulsaker 0-0, 0-0, 0; Schmidt 0-0, 0-0, 0. Totals — 19-40, 7-8, 49. 3-pointers — Robertson 2, Yowell 2.
Buhler (51) — Steffen 6-10, 10-11, 25; Domsch 0-1, 1-2, 1; Keller 1-8, 7-9, 9; Boll 0-1, 2-2, 2; Rohr 0-1, 0-0, 0; Burns 6-6, 2-2, 14. Totals — 13-27, 22-26, 51. 3-pointers — Steffen 3.