A strong defensive effort locked down the Hesston offensive effort Saturday night in the Abilene girls Class 4A sub-state final, allowing McPherson High School to punch its ticket to the state tournament for the fourth straight year.
"Somtimes the toughest thing is just to get (to state)," MHS coach Chris Strathman said after the 35-26 Bullpup win. "There's been a number of really good teams knocked out. We're just happy to be left standing."
The Bullpups (20-3) did find themselves having to grind out the win against the Swathers, who also had come into Saturday's game looking to put the brakes on a normally high-powered MHS offense.
Abby Pedersen looked to start the game on hot note, knocking down a three barely 30 seconds into play. Katelyn Loecker added another two, but the Swathers cinched in, keeping McPherson from finding the basket for the next four minutes.
Unfortunately for Hesston, they were no more successful at shooting, with Kelsey Unruh finally managing to sink the first Swather bucket at the two minute mark of the first. McPherson would take a 7-2 lead into the second quarter.
The two defenses would continue to frustrate the opposing offense in the second, though Hesston managed to find some holes in the MHS defense that allowed them to mount a comeback run to tie the game at 13-13 heading into the locker room at the half.
Hesston took their first lead of the ballgame in the third off a quick 4-1 mini-run to put them up 17-14 with about five minutes on the clock. Loecker would cut that lead to two only seconds later, with junior Janae Barnes making a breakaway lay-in to give McPherson back the lead at 18-17 with 4:45 left in the third.
McPherson had a 23-20 lead going into the final period, with the Swathers nipping at their heels the entire eight minutes, never giving the Bullpups an opportunity to put the game away.
Unruh would foul out of the game at the 1:33 mark as Hesston sent MHS to the line in an attempt to get few more possessions as time wound down.
The Bullpups hit 6-of-8 from the foul line down the stretch, though, to cement the sub-state win.
"Our girls just competed," Strathman said. "They found a way when we got down and just kept their composure."
Most of the offensive output for the Pups through the first three quarters came from Loecker. The Oklahoma State signee seemed determined to power MHS into the state finals and finished with 18 points.
"Obviously, we need to get Katelyn touches," Strathman said. "We know that, Hesston knows that.
Everybody knows that. But the girls did a good job of getting her the ball."
Page 2 of 2 - Pedersen finished with 10 points on the night for McPherson, who will look to repeat as state champions this week for the first time since the three-peat of 1997-1999 under former head coach Scott Schaefer.
Strathman acknowledged the pressure his team was under to make it back into the state tournament, noting the expectations that come with McPherson basketball.
"We're all aware of it," Strathman said. "But these girls just wore it well. They stood poised when it really counted. I couldn't be more proud."
McPherson will open up the state tournament Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. against Labette County (15-7) at the Salina Bicentennial Center.
Tickets will be $8 for adults and $7 for children K-12.
McPherson fan seating for Thursday will be located directly across from the home team bench in sections 210, 110, 108, 106, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and 2. The student section will be located in section 208.
Contact Chris Swick by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @SwickSentinel.