No matter the result, no one can deny the McPherson High girls fought to the bitter end Saturday night in the Class 4A championship game against Wamego in front of a loud Salina Bicentennial crowd.
Unfortunately, the Bullpups, vying for their second straight 4A championship and the ninth in school history, ran into the sister tag team of Kaylee and Lanie Page, who led the Red Raiders to a 60-53 championship win.
"They're as good as advertised," McPherson High coach Chris Strathman said of the Pages. "We knew full well what they were capable of and they showed it tonight."
McPherson refused to blink in the face of the duo's attack, however. Senior Katelyn Loecker looked determined from the opening tip to not fail in the Bullpups' bid for their first repeat championship since the days of Scott Schaefer, who won three in 1997-1999.
Kaylee Page opened up the scoring in the first quarter with a three-pointer at with 5:11 showing on the game clock. That sparked a intense back and forth between both Pages and Loecker for the next several minutes, each answering what the other managed to do for her own team.
Wamego (25-1) had completely shut down any Bullpup distance shooting in the first quarter, until junior Hannah Willems came off the bench and buried a three at the buzzer to give McPherson an 11-10 advantage going into the second period.
Senior Hailey Ruder would knock down a three of her own at the 6:27 mark of the second quarter, the last time MHS would hit a three-point bucket for the duration of the game.
The Red Raiders responded to Ruder's three with an 11-0 run that ate up three minutes of game clock and gave them a 25-20 advantage going into halftime.
Strathman charged his team with shutting down the Pages in the second half, as they accounted for the entirety of Wamego's 25 first-half points.
"We decided we were going to get beat by someone other than the Page sisters," Strathman said. "A few times we knocked them down, a few times someone who hadn't been taking shots had to take them."
That lock-down of the Pages allowed McPherson to keep the game close, with six points being the farthest the Red Raider lead stretched to in the third quarter.
Foul troubles started mounting for the Bullpups, though, as Loecker picked up her fourth foul with 13.9 seconds left in the third frame and McPherson down 40-35. Strathman made the call to keep Loecker in the game, instead of instituting the offense-defense substitution pattern employed throughout the season.
"It was that type of game," Strathman said. "We just felt we couldn't keep her on the bench."
Page 2 of 2 - Both Ruder and junior Janae Barnes would also find themselves with four fouls by the 6:30 mark of the fourth quarter, but McPherson would put together a 6-0 run to grab the lead a minute later.
The score would bounce back and forth a couple more times before Loecker picked up her fifth foul at 3:25.
Strathman called a quick timeout and Loecker had a short but intense conversation with Barnes on the sidelines, who responded by leading a Bullpup charge that came within a point of tying the game with 1:34 left on the clock.
"She was awesome," Strathman said. "All I have ever asked these girls to do is leave it on the floor. Janae left it on the floor."
Barnes, who had been kept scoreless in the first half, scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in the second half, trying to take control of the game in the absence of Loecker and, later, Ruder, who fouled out with under a minute left.
It was not to be, however, as Wamego took advantage of foul shots and kept the lid on the distance shooting of Abby Pedersen, who was held scoreless in the contest.
This was Wamego's first ever girls' title and, if head coach Jim Page has any say in it, it won't be the last.
"Wamego still is a small town, even for being in 4A," Page said. "We don't have a program like the Holtons and the Hesstons that appear year after year after year. I want to be like those guys."
Loecker led all scores with 25 points and picked up eight rebounds in her last game as a Bullpup. In addition to Barnes' double-double, Ruder ended her senior season with eight points and four assists.
Kaylee Page had 22 points, followed by Lanie Pages's 20. Lakyn Rowden came alive in the third quarter for Wamego and finished with 10 points.
McPherson ended it's season 22-4.